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Why Iraq's Sunnis fear new PMU law

A new law that will turn Shiite militias of the Popular Mobilization Units into an official security force has sparked fierce opposition from Sunni parliamentarians.
Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims from Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) march during a parade marking the annual al-Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Baghdad, Iraq July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily - RTX2J7WT

BAGHDAD — After the Iraqi parliament passed a law Nov. 26 establishing a new security force independent of the Iraqi army — consisting of the predominately Shiite militias of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) under the leadership of the General Commander of the armed forces — the Sunni bloc walked out of the legislature as a show of its opposition. The predominantly Shiite National Alliance supported the law.

According to the parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, the law turning the PMU into an official security institution would be structured similarly to the anti-terrorism apparatus. The PMU law stipulates limiting fighters to 50,000, of which 15,000 are to be Sunni. Current figures indicate that there are 150,000 fighters in the PMU's ranks. The 2017 budget, however, includes funding for 110,000 fighters, pointing to the possibility of only 40,000 fighters being demobilized.

“The aim is to turn the PMU into a national institution that includes all components and sects, rather than being confined to one component of the Iraqi people,” Deputy Security and Defense Committee Chairman Iskandar Watout told Al-Monitor. “The law provides for the preservation of the moral and material rights of PMU members, much like the members of the Iraqi army, as well as for the rights of the families of the martyrs.”

Watout emphasized, “This is the least [the government] can do for the PMU factions that have sacrificed a lot to liberate Iraq from terrorism.”

The Shiites in the PMU consist primarily of three groups: professional factions, most of which formed during the US military presence in Iraq, notably Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization; unaffiliated volunteers who joined after the fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on June 13, 2014; and the Abbasi and Husseini Shiite factions, which are indirectly supported by Sistani and include the Abbas Battle Group, Liwa’ Ali al-Akbar and the Imam Ali Troop, to name a few. The Sunni PMU militias can be divided into two factions: the tribes of Anbar and Salahuddin as well as the National Mobilization, established by former Gov. of Ninevah province Atheel al-Nujaifi and consisting of fighters from Ninevah.

The important question is how will all these sections, with their different ideologies, be integrated under a single institution and leadership, especially in light of the Sunnis’ unsatisfied demand to pass a law to turn organized fighters in Sunni provinces into National Guard forces to protect those provinces. In addition, the majority of Sunni parties opposed the PMU law in part because they feel the government is being selective in not including Sunni tribal factions under the new PMU institution, while accepting most Shiite groups.

PMU spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi told Al-Monitor, “All PMU factions will be completely separated from their current political and religious affiliations as well as group names in order to become a new security institution with an official leadership and single authority under the General Command of the armed forces.”

He added, “The mobilization institution will not be confined to a single component. This is why the word “popular” was not mentioned in the law, in order not to have any future discrimination between the fighters of the popular mobilization, the tribal mobilization and others.”

Asadi claimed that there is no conflict between the PMU and the National Guard, noting that in regard to the latter, it “can have a law of its own to protect [Sunni] provinces, but the PMU will turn into a centralized, federal institution.” Sunni politicians, however, are afraid a sectarian army will emerge from the transformed PMU, given that Shiite fighters greatly outnumber Sunni fighters in the organization.

In this regard, Ninevah representative Ahmed Madloul told Al-Monitor about the Sunni-Shiite parliamentary divided over the PMU law, saying, “Some blocs want a law that preserves the rights of the PMU and appreciates the sacrifices it made in the fight against the Islamic State, while others believe it would be wrong to have a third institution in addition to the army and police, especially since they think it will be hard to integrate all PMU factions under one institution.”

Madloul added, “The [Sunni] tribal mobilization has a small number of fighters and does not have enough equipment and weapons like the [Shiite] PMU, which is split into several factions that cannot be easily unified.” He concluded, “The best possible solution is to integrate PMU members into the army and police forces.”

The PMU law will remain a controversial subject as long as the Sunni blocs oppose it. The post-IS period will be the true test of the Shiite and Sunni factions’ ability to integrate and transition into official and institutional operations.

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