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Iraq seeks to combine Sunni, Shiite troops

As part of the national reconciliation, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered that the Sunni Ninevah Guard be included in the Popular Mobilization Units.

BAGHDAD — Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) is stirring up more controversy, this time over an order to integrate the primarily Shiite force with fighters from the Ninevah Guard, a mainly Sunni group.

The Ninevah Guard, previously known as the National Mobilization Forces, had been banned from participating in the battle of Mosul, and a former leader, Atheel al-Nujaifi, is a wanted man. Yet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the order to merge the groups on Dec. 31.

Abdul Rahman Alloizi, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Forces Alliance and the parliament member for Ninevah province, said Jan. 16 that integrating the Ninevah Guard into the PMU is part of Iraq's efforts to appease Turkey. A week after the decision was announced, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited Baghdad and met with Abadi, President Fuad Massum and parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri.

The Ninevah Guard consists of volunteers who served previously as officers or soldiers in the Iraqi army and who were trained by Turkish troops in a camp on the outskirts of Mosul that was established after the Islamic State (IS) took over the city in June 2014.

The pertinent questions about Abadi’s decision to merge the groups mostly revolve around the future of Nujaifi. About three months ago, the Central Investigating Court issued a warrant to arrest Nujaifi on charges of “communicating with a foreign country,” accusing him of helping uninvited Turkish troops enter Iraq. However, Nujaifi is currently in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Baghdad has yet to demand he be handed over.

According to Nujaifi, who welcomed Abadi’s move to include the Ninevah Guard in the PMU, the decision is not politically motivated and has nothing to do with the arrest warrant against him, as there have been no compromises made in this regard.

But how would it be possible to legalize a force whose leader is wanted by the security establishment?

Ammar Tohme, the deputy chairman of parliament's Security and Defense Committee, told Al-Monitor the committee would convene soon to discuss integrating the groups, which is the prime minister's prerogative. “However, we would like to know what the fate of the political leadership of the Ninevah Guard [Nujaifi] would be and if it would be part of the security establishment. Will this affect the factional quota and the composition of the PMU?”

Regarding the push for Mosul, Tohme noted the importance of including "all the fighters who fought against IS, especially the sons of the liberated areas, who are bound to preserve the integrity of their territories.”

At the official level, the PMU is now welcoming the decision to include the Ninevah Guard in their troops. PMU spokesman Karim al-Nouri expressed optimism about the decision, saying, “We are delighted to have the Ninevah Guard as part of our ranks because they have as a priority to liberate their own city [Mosul].” Mosul is the capital of Ninevah province.

Nouri echoed Tohme, telling Al-Monitor, “This is a step in the right direction, as the Ninevah Guard troops are the sons of the city and it is their responsibility to liberate it. They know better than anyone else the city’s neighborhoods, streets and people.”

But in September, PMU leader Faleh al-Fayyad had said in a statement on the organization's official website, “The PMU will not recognize the Ninevah Guard." 

The PMU itself is no stranger to rejection. Formed in 2014, the PMU is regarded by many as a group of undisciplined militias that have abused Sunni civilians in the areas it liberates. In November, parliament made the PMU an official government force, which the parliamentary Sunni blocs objected to.

Legitimizing the group is still a thorny issue, and for that reason the PMU controversy cannot be separated from the ruling Shiite Iraqi National Alliance's efforts to achieve a national settlement for the post-IS period — especially after the meeting between PMU leader Ammar al-Hakim and Nujaifi in Iraqi Kurdistan. This raised the ire of some Shiite parties within the alliance, which deems it imperative to exclude Nujaifi or any person wanted by the judiciary from any political project in the future.

Perhaps the position of Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, a parliament member for the Shiite alliance and former national security adviser, reflects some of the complexities expected in the country's political and security situations once the liberation operations are complete.

In a press statement, Rubaie said, “The inclusion of the Ninevah Guard fighters in the PMU is eccentric in terms of equating the Ninevah Guard troops with the sacrifices and martyrs the PMU offered to regain the Iraqi lands and to liberate [Iraq] from the clutches” of IS.

He added, “Does [the prime minister's] decision invalidate the arrest warrant against [the guard's] leader, who is still accused of collaborating with a foreign country, after the emergence of evidence against him and presented to the judiciary?”

According to Alloizi, the arrest warrant against Nujaifi cannot be revoked.

“[Though] it is necessary to include the Ninevah Guard fighters within the Iraqi security institution so they are subjected to the orders of the general commander of the armed forces, this does not mean that chapter will be closed on Nujaifi’s judicial issue,” he told Al-Monitor. “There is a lot of evidence and documents that condemn Nujaifi. Any political settlement that might affect the judiciary would backfire and be counterproductive for the country’s general situation.”

Still, it seems likely that the Nujaifi issue will be settled in court and he will again become a PMU leader. 

It appears there have been some political agendas, backed by foreign stakeholders' lobbying, to keep Nujaifi and his brother, Osama, in their positions in return for relinquishing the Sunni push for their own governorate.

In October, Osama al-Nujaifi pulled off some political and judicial maneuvers to be reappointed to his position as one of the country's vice presidents, before the Mosul battle began. Atheel al-Nujaifi is managing to impose the Ninevah Guard on the security establishment, and is currently forming a team of lawyers to defend him in the case of aiding Turkey.

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