Alwaght- What is now formally identified as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or locally Hashd al-Shaabi, in Iraq is a force founded three years ago with the aim of combating the then-advancing ISIS terrorist group. The PMF, with its over 100,000 fighters, was a voluntary force upon its initiation and meant to act as an ideological force along with the classic Iraqi army in a bid to provide backup for the country’s armed forces.
The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his recent visit to West Asian region, including Iraq, brought under fire the Iraqi popular force after unleashing a series of accusations against it. Calling the PMF a foreign force, Tillerson said that after obliteration of ISIS in Iraq, the anti-terror force should be disbanded.
As it was expected, Tillerson attack on PMF role in Iraq’s fighting against terrorism drew fierce responses from the Iraqi officials. Primary reaction come by the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who strongly supported the PMF and called them the “hope of Iraq and the region.”
Further reaction came from the Iraqi government’s spokesperson Saad al-Hadithi who underscored significance of the PMF fighting against ISIS terrorists and asserted that the popular force is part of the official Iraqi armed forces. He further labelled the Tillerson remarks as an insult to the Iraqi nation and apparent meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
Ahmed al-Assadi, the spokesman to the PMF, found the Tillerson comments and accusations “baseless.” Hakim al-Zamili of the Sadrist Movement, who leads the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, was another Iraqi official to rebuke the top American diplomat, defending role of the Hashd al-Shaabi in the nation’s combat against terrorism. Some of the country’s lawmakers like Raad Almas of Diyala province and Khalaf Abdul Samad of the Islamic Dawa Party, too, called the remarks disrespectful to the parliament that in late November last year passed a legislation legalizing the PMF as a branch Iraqi armed forces.
PMF's unmatched role in counterterrorism
Before mobilizing the popular forces, the country was genuinely falling prey to the sweeping ISIS assaults, with vast swaths of Iraq falling to the hands of the terrorist group in a short time. After its foundation in 2014, the peak of ISIS strength in Iraq, the PMF exhibited its game-changing influence in the battle to retake Tikrit, located some 140 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. The popular forces further took part in next liberating operations along with the regular army, including the recapture of Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar. They then separately surrounded the ISIS-held Fallujah in May 2016, paving the way for the armed forces to reclaim control of the important city.
The climactic point of the PMF shining on the battlefield was when they managed to seize back from ISIS the oil-rich Baiji oilfields in north. The seizure hit hard the terrorist group’s oil production, which meant considerable drop of cash flow to the terrorists. In fact, the blow was heavy in terms of cutting ISIS interests coming from the Iraqi oil.
In general, since the beginning, the PMF role-playing on the battlegrounds was marked by controlling the country’s borders with Syria, securing the cities and border areas, and also coordinating the cross-border operations that helped convergence within the Axis of Resistance body. The PMF continues to play role. Very latest triumph in which the PMF support to the Iraqi army can be tracked was the liberation of Hawija in Kirkuk. The town was retaken from ISIS militants on October 5.
From acceptance to legitimacy
Two issues in Tillerson remarks aroused reactions by the Iraqi officials: First, disputing legitimacy of the PMF, and second making claims of existence of foreign forces among the Iraqi volunteers. But the Iraqi political climate is far from any challenging of the popular forces. When in 2014 Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a top Shiite cleric, issued a fatwa (religious verdict) and called on Iraqi nation to stand against ISIS, thousands of Iraqi youths mobilized in defense of the country, displaying popularity of such an organization in the society. Back-to-back victories and liberation of ground in the ISIS-held regions more than ever strengthened the popular base of the PMF. The powerful armed organization finally was recognized as a branch of the national Iraqi armed forces following a law passed by the Council of the Representatives in 2016. In other words, the PMF was legalized as a force beside the army and under the command of the PM who simultaneously is the commander-in-chief.
Beside their glaringly apparent role in anti-terror battles, the PMF won their legitimacy from practical emphasis on national cohesion, approval of the ethno-sectarian diversity, national and religious identity, and protection of the national sovereignty against the split projects. Despite the fact that Shiites account for the main body of Popular Mobilization Forces, participation of thousands of Sunni and Turkmen fighters shows that the armed force is not of a sectarian nature.
PMF gains and US escaping forward
Following the gains in the Iraqi field developments, the PMF rose to be a key mainly Shiite actor on the war scene. These gains triggered great concerns among anti-Shiite American leaders, urging them show their strong opposition in various ways. Washington pressed Iraqi lawmakers not to approve PMF legalization legislation. It, moreover, provoked its local proxies to act against the PMF, not to mention the regular criticism aimed against the popular force in a bid to block its outstanding role-playing on the Iraqi stage.
Tarnishing the image of the PMF is not everything the Americans got. The US has practically supported the terrorists despite claims of fighting against them in Iraq. US-led coalition’s scaled-down airstrikes on ISIS helped the terrorist fighters cross the Iraqi border into the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor to help their fellow militants take on the advancing Syrian forces who launched their campaign to break the three-year terrorist blockade on the city. The media reports also talk about the American air cover for the terrorists.
The US holds nearly 5,000 forces in Iraq. However, it so far declined to make a game-changing help to the anti-terror campaign. Washington also developed parallel forces like the Hashd al-Watani, an all-Sunni force commanded by Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul at the time of the city’s fall to ISIS in June 2014, in an effort to curb the growing PMF influence in the country. The Americans even sharpened their antipathy to the popular forces especially after Mosul recapture which meant an increase in the force’s position in the regional equations.
Nevertheless, according to the Iraqi law, the Popular Mobilization Forces are part of the nation’s armed forces, with their rights and duties vividly determined. They constantly move within the defined lines of the country’s unity and stress objection to transregional forces' presence and intervention. This leads to the notion that the American coming against the PMF's role signals that Washington is antipathetic to the Iraqi national interests.
On the other hand, the Iraqi parliamentary election is expected to be held in May 2018 and the White House fears the PMF participation. Though PMF will not participate in form of an independent political bloc, the US is afraid that the political factions that helped found the alliance will take part independently or within other parliamentary coalitions. The parliamentary race will be heated as all political groups will seek adequate share of seats to form government and pick favorable prime minister.
Aside from the US efforts to get toehold in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has established contacts with various parties and figures like Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Movement, signaling that the two actors are designing plans for the upcoming elections. All of their efforts are meant to raise to power leaders who favor the West and its allies and work against Iran’s regional agenda. The concentration is now on attracting part of the Iraqi Shiite body to cut the Iranian sway there.
It appears that Washington and Riyadh seek shifting the country’s now Shiite-Sunni political structure to Sunni-Baathist one, a plot facing roadblock if the PMF's founding groups decide to join the parliamentary race.
The PMF will remain loyal to Tehran as it considers the Iran as the only trustworthy partner on which it can count if the need arises. Therefore, Americans find it hard to witness the PMF gains and role expansion as a force in collision course with their policies in Iraq. This provides them with strong drive to escape forward by bringing anti-PMF accusations.