The head of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), an Iranian-supported Iraqi militia group, has said that the country’s paramilitary forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) will remain a military organization and participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections at the same time. “The Hashd al-Shaabi [PMF] forces need to be preserved as a military force because the Americans have tried repeatedly to dissolve these forces so that Iraq loses its winning military card,” AAH leader Qais al-Khazali said in a lenghty interview with Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “I must say that America’s military presence in Iraq after ISIS has no justification and is rejected by the Iraqi nation,” he added.  

Khazali also stressed the need for the paramilitary forces to actively take part in the elections to win a sizable portion of seats in the next parliament – arguing that PMF leaders’ influence in the parliament will be essential to further strengthening the PMF and paving the way for the exit of American troops from Iraq.  

He said there are two ways to bring about “structural change” in Iraq: either through a revolution and coup to topple the existing political system or through participation in the political processes, including elections. But he pointed out that his group prefers to strive for gradual changes through political processes.  

Asked by Tasnim whether the future of the PMF could be in danger if Iraqi Shiites under-perform in the paramilitary vote, Khazali said he was confident the coalition of PMF groups, dubbed as the Fatah Alliance, will do well in the polls and win a significant number of seats. He, however, stressed that it was highly unlikely for a grand Shiite coalition to emerge prior to the elections. Khazali hinted that PMF leaders will use their influence in the next Iraqi parliament to expedite the US withdrawal from the country.

Comment: Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree formalizing the inclusion of the Hashd al-Shaabi forces in the country’s security forces. According to the Abadi’s order, the paramilitary forces will receive equivalent salaries and other benefits as the country’s military personnel under the Ministry of Defense. The announcement by the Baghdad government came despite repeated warnings by Washington and regional Sunni states about the growing power and influence of the PMF, particularly units linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

But several PMF commanders with close ties to Tehran rejected reports that the paramilitary forces will be merged into the Iraqi security forces – stressing that the PMF will remain a separate military entity.

As Khazali indicated, PMF leaders want the paramilitary force to remain a separate military institution, yet they are also entering the political field to consolidate their power even further. The Fatah Alliance consists of major PMF groups, all of which are closely linked with the IRGC.

With ISIS defeated and Iraqi parliamentary elections on the horizon, Iranian-backed militia commanders and politicians in Iraq have ramped up calls for the withdrawal of American troops from the country. Several units within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) – such as the Iraqi Hezbollah, Harakat al-Nujaba and the Badr Organization – have increased pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “expel” American troops and have also threatened violence if Washington decides to keep its forces in the country.

On March 1, the Iraqi parliament also called on the government to set up a timeline for the exit of foreign troops that have helping the Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. The vote was organized by the Shiite ruling coalition in the parliament. With the May 12 parliamentary elections nearing, Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders and politicians have made the issue of US withdrawal a key election theme. By promising to expel all foreign forces from the country, these groups want to win the votes of nationalists, and they also put pressure on the Baghdad government.

If Iran’s allies manage to secure a dominant position in the next Iraqi parliament, they will certainly increase pressure on the American forces to leave the country.

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