BAGHDAD — Factions of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are threatening to attack US troops that participate in the battle to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (IS), but the Iraqi government hopes to smooth things over.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said his government will work on a consensus formula to convince PMU factions of the need to involve US troops in the battle to resolve the problem as soon as possible. He also hopes to persuade Washington that the PMU is a national force of the Iraqi state and should be part of a special military system to liberate Mosul.
It seems there is a strong possibility an understanding can be reached — if the PMU is assured the United States does not intend to build a military base in Ninevah province. Mosul is the capital of Ninevah.
However, many are not convinced. Hassan al-Kaabi, a member of the PMU backing up the Iraqi government forces, rejects the presence of US troops in the battle for Mosul and believes they are not keen to help Iraqis fight terrorism.
“I will fight them wherever they are," he told Al-Monitor. "They are an occupation force that pretends to be assisting us."
Kaabi joined the PMU on June 14, 2014, one day after Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for the PMU's formation. Kaabi said, “Iraqis are capable of liberating their cities on their own." He is but one of the thousands of PMU fighters who think the presence of US troops does not serve the interests of the Iraqi people.
Late last month, PMU leader Rayan al-Kaldani issued a threat, saying, “The PMU will be dealing with any illegitimate and foreign forces in Mosul the way it deals with the gangs of the Islamic State."
Akram al-Kaabi, the secretary-general of PMU faction Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, said, “The Americans are worried about the PMU joining the battle for Mosul because … it will prevent [US troops] from establishing a base there.” He added, “The Americans’ intention is to seize the Qayyarah air base in southern Mosul.”
Qais al-Khazali, the general secretary of the prominent PMU faction Khazali Network, also has threatened to kill US troops in the battle for Mosul. Michael Pregent, a former US military intelligence officer, told Fox News last month that Khazali's fighters pose a true danger to US troops. In fact, he said, most of the PMU factions that are fighting alongside US forces have fought against US forces in the past.
Pregent expects the PMU to clash with US troops, making it more difficult for the Iraqi government to liberate Mosul.
Khazali has been backed by Iran, which seems to be pushing toward preventing any US participation. Ali Akbar Velayati, the president of the Expediency Discernment Council’s Center for Strategic Research, an Iranian think tank, agrees that “the PMU … will not allow Washington to assume any role in the battle.”
Most, if not all, PMU factions perceive the US military presence in Iraq as an occupation. The PMU also fears falling victim to US air raids, as happened last month in Syria.
An Iraqi local news website reported that US Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones has warned that if the PMU acts without coordinating with the Iraqi government, the PMU might be hit accidentally during the US-led coalition’s raids. A lack of coordination on the battlefronts is a new dilemma adding to other factors affecting ties between the PMU and the United States.
It is not the first time armed factions have threatened to target US forces in Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Sadrist movement, said in July that any US forces present in Iraq will be targeted.
While US forces do not want to clash with the PMU, both parties will try to avoid any contact and move forward with the operations to liberate Ninevah without any problems or obstacles. Conditions and settlements shall be certainly applied in this regard.