Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi yesterday issued a decree on the inclusion of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the country’s security forces, the Iranian and Lebanese media reported. According to the Abadi’s order, the paramilitary forces, also known by its Arabic name Hashd al-Shaabi, will receive equivalent salaries and other benefits as the country’s military personnel under the Ministry of Defense. The PMF forces from now on also can enroll in military colleges and institutions and will be subject to the country’s military service laws and regulations. The announcement by the Baghdad government came as Washington and regional Sunni states express the concern that the growing power and influence of the PMF, particularly units linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, will undermine Iraqi stability and sectarian balance in post-ISIS Iraq. The Iraqi parliament in November 2016 had approved a law granting legal status to the PMF as an integral part of the country’s security forces.
Comment: The PMF consists of militia forces largely from Shiite but also other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. While some PMF units are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, many prominent groups within PMF have close ties with Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. What makes Sunni Iraqis and regional states particularly worried is that, despite PMF’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units within the PMF – such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization – that have emerged as the most influential actors in the wake of the ISIS collapse. These groups have committed sectarian violence against Iraqi Sunnis, and engaged in acts of terrorism against American troops before the 2011 US withdrawal. Last October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the Iranian-backed militias and IRGC personnel to “go home” as the ISIS fight was nearing its end.
Tehran, in contrast, pressured the Baghdad government not to disband the PMF after the ISIS battle was over. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asked Abadi during the latter’s visit to Tehran last year to keep PMF and integrate the forces into the military against the advice of Washington and its regional allies.
Some PMF leaders still take their instructions and orders from Tehran than Baghdad. Thus their full integration into the Iraqi military will help further consolidate Tehran’s long-term influence in the Arab country. And unlike in Syria, Iran will not have to bear the burden of providing billions of dollars annually to its proxies in Iraq because they receive their regular salaries from the Baghdad government.