Iraq’s menacing militias


WHEN it comes to Iraqi government’s demobilization of its often lawless militias, President Donald Trump’s administration appears to be one step behind events. Mick Mulroy, soon to depart from Trump’s Defense Department team has said Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi must press on with plans he announced at the start of July to bring an end to the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs).

In fact it looks as if Mahdi has succumbed to pressure from Iran to backtrack on his scheme. There have been widespread protests at his decision to sidetrack one of the country’s more effective senior military commanders. Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab Al-Saadi, who was the deputy head of the key Counter-Terrorism Service has been moved to a desk job in the ministry of defense. He is not a happy man and has protested his reassignment, characterizing it as an “insult” and a “punishment”.

Government leaks suggest that Mahdi has bowed to intense lobbying from the Iranian-backed Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which is among the better armed and organized of some 40 militias that are loosely banded together as the PMU. Al-Saadi, who has been spoken of as a future prime minister, was hailed for his part in the recapture of Mosul from Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS). The locals even put up his statue, though because of protests from militiamen, it has never been formally unveiled.

It is important to remember that Iraq’s military regulars have rarely covered themselves in glory. This was in no small measure because its senior ranks were hollowed out under the wretched premiership of Nuri Al-Maliki, who was heavily influence by the regime in Tehran. The victory over the terrorists allowed the army to redeem part of its reputation and Al-Saadi was one of its most successful commanders. Nevertheless, Daesh could not have been overwhelmed had it not been for the massed ranks of the PMU militias who, despite their often inept tactics, displayed a fanaticism that matched that of the terrorists. Fatally weakened by US-led Coalition airstrikes, in which the Kingdom’s warplanes played a significant role, in the end it was the sheer weight of numbers that brought about defeat of the Daesh killers.

Mahdi rightly appreciated that for Iraq to return to stability and cohesive government, the militias had either to be disbanded or subsumed into the regular army. Following his July announcement, the majority of the PMU leaders expressed their agreement but quite reasonably argued for a longer time span than the month that he gave them to do this. In the event of course, not a single one of the 140,000 militiamen is believed to have become one of the country’s 54,000 regular servicemen. Mahdi’s plan was doomed to failure from the start, and now, following the sidelining of Al-Saadi, one of his top commanders, it is possible to suspect that he never meant it to work in the first place. Either he or the Iranian agents within the government and civil service always meant the move to be a fiasco.

Washington can hector all it likes but Iraq is still in the grip of militias, the most powerful of which report to Tehran. The volley of PMU rockets that smashed down near America’s Baghdad embassy last month could not have made the point more clearly.