What Next for Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units?

By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

On July 26, the Iraqi government announced that the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) will be converted into “an independent military formation affiliated with the armed forces’ commander-in-chief.” The Shiite force was formed in June 2014 in response to religious calls to take up arms against the Islamic State (IS).

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s decision sparked an uproar among Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis. On Aug. 14, the Kurdish news site Rudaw collected the opinions of analysts and ordinary citizens, all of whom criticized the move as a step toward forming a parallel military force.

Other reports claimed that the government’s decision to take control of the PMU, which participated in the liberation of Salahuddin, Ramadi and Fallujah and are planning to join the battle for Mosul, reflects “a plan to establish a guard similar to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

Qasim Mozan, a reporter for the Iraqi Media Network, told Al-Monitor the government’s decision will “turn the PMU into a security force that follows the orders of the prime minister, [which would allow him] to fix any security gap [within the PMU] in a swift and efficient manner.”

Journalist Hassan al-Shanoun told Al-Monitor, “This project will distance the PMU from partisan and sectarian influence and will strengthen the government’s power [over the PMU] while weakening the political blocs that are part of the PMU factions.”

PMU leader Ahmed al-Assadi supported Abadi’s decision. He told Al-Monitor, “The PMU will turn into a government force that is independent from the political parties’ control, as it will report directly to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Abadi.”

The PMU are currently associated with known political forces such as the Peace Brigades led by the Sadrist movement, the Ashura Brigades affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq headed by Mahdi Army defector Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, the Hezbollah Brigades with their ties to Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Badr organization led by parliament member Hadi al-Amiri.

Many factions part of the PMU today will probably wish for the organization to remain in its current form and serve as a legal cover for them to exercise their influence in a role similar to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nevertheless, Assadi commented, “The factions that refuse to turn [the PMU] into an independent government force will be considered outlaws.”

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