Has US found a New Friend in Iraq's Shiite Militias?

The United States seems to have become more aware of the nature of Iraqi actors like the Popular Mobilization Units. In May 2015, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, retired Gen. John Allen, told CBS News, “The militias are not just a single monolithic entity. There are the militias that you and I are used to hearing [about] that have close alignments with Iran. Those are the extremist elements, and we don’t have anything to do with that. But there are elements of the [Shiite] militias that volunteered last year to try to defend Iraq from the onslaught of [IS] who were called to arms by Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-] Sistani, and those elements, or the Popular Mobilization Force, as they are known, have been subordinated to the Iraqi higher military campaign or command.”

Allen concluded that the United States is going to need to assume a positive role in supporting the force in order to defeat IS.

Nevertheless, some factions within the Popular Mobilization Units still have doubts regarding the new US attitude. In a statement, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the renamed Peace Brigades (formerly the Mahdi Army), condemned Walker’s visit and criticized stances favoring the visit by politicians and even parties within the organization without naming them.

Gen. Abdul Karim al-Zuhairi, a security commander concerned with coordination with the Popular Mobilization Units, told Al-Monitor, “The US shift toward the Popular Mobilization Units came after it realized that it has lost a presence in the region and learned about the Popular Mobilization Units’ huge popularity. This is added to the support for these units by Iran, which is one of the most important regional actors.”

Al-Monitor interviewed Norman Ricklefs, CEO of Iraq Advisory Group and former adviser to the secretary-general of the Iraq's Defense Ministry and senior adviser to the Interior Minister. He said, “The Popular Mobilization Units proved to be efficient and gradually evolved into a more regular force than it was in the past, especially after the operations to liberate Tikrit. It is important and very good to see that the Popular Mobilization Units are increasingly being recognized within international circles. Yet these units need to welcome international support, lower their hostility to the US and make greater efforts to achieve administrative and legal integration in the official Iraqi military forces.”

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