Following a July 1 decree by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi ordering the factions of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to be absorbed into the state security forces, pro-Iranian PMU factions have reacted with anger.
Abdul Mahdi’s decree says, “All Popular Mobilization Units are to operate as an indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations,” but does not clarify whether they must be integrated fully into the Iraqi army or become a parallel force under the supervision of the prime minister as commander in chief of the armed forces.
During his weekly press conference the next day, he said the time has come to regulate the PMU. "All Popular Mobilization Units personnel will be integrated into the police and army ranks according to Iraqi military regulations," he said, giving the PMU until July 31 to abide by the decree or hand over their weapons to the government and become a political party or civil organization.
There is a big difference between Abdul Mahdi's decree and the 2016 decree of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which defined the PMU as an independent entity, unaffiliated with the Iraqi army and under the supervision of the prime minister rather than the Ministry of Defense.
Soon after Abdul Mahdi's decree, Baghdad’s streets were full of posters proclaiming that the PMU is "staying."
One PMU website published reports that the United States and Saudi Arabia had forced Abdul Mahdi to issue the decree, saying this will put Iraq's security in danger.
Indeed, it is clear that Abdul Mahdi is under great pressure from the United States and its allies in the region to control the PMU, especially after reports that attributed to Iraqi militias the attack on a Saudi pipeline last month and several rocket strikes on US interests across Iraq.
A group of PMU factions linked to Iran reacted angrily to the prime minister's decree. Kata'ib Hezbollah slammed it in a July 4 statement that said, "The government should have prevented the activity of foreign armed groups in Iraq such as the [Kurdistan Workers Party] and Atheel Nujaifi militias, who carry out the orders of a foreign country. It is the government's duty to prevent espionage."
The statement also said, "Criminalizing the [PMU fighters] directly or indirectly would weaken security, which will strengthen the presence and goals of the American enemy, producing another [Islamic State]."
There are no official statistics available on the PMU's numbers, but there are estimated to be 45 factions with about 130,000 members. Many were active as illegal militias before the Islamic State (IS) attacked Iraq in June 2014. The IS threat led Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish the PMU and gather all the militias under its umbrella. Shiite militias were able to formally establish themselves in the newly formed PMU. During the fight against IS, the PMU gained power and influence in both the security and the political spheres.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose fatwa was behind the formation of the PMU, has been trying to curb the militias' ambition and encourage them to integrate into the state military in order to prevent the formation of a parallel force under Iran's influence. Indeed, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked Iraqi politicians on different occasions not to dissolve the PMU or integrate it into state security institutions.
Sistani has made a habit of not using the term PMU, instead calling those in the militias volunteers. On several occasions, he has requested that the militias be fully integrated into state forces. This placed pressure on many of the militias, limiting Iranian influence over time. Now most of the militias are not affiliated with Iran.
Some of the factions such as Saraya al-Salam announced that they will fully abide by Abdul Mahdi's decree. The Al-Abbas Combat Division, Ansar al-Marjaia Brigade, Kata'ib al-Tayyar al-Risali and Imam Ali Combat Division are among the majority of PMU groups that listen to Sistani and pledge their allegiance to the state as he demands. Only a few, in particular Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Katayeb al-Khorasani, are under Iran’s influence.
Still, the road to overcome challenges from pro-Iranian militias and their affiliated parties have built appears to be a long one.