BAGHDAD — The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which the Iraqi parliament voted to fully legalize Nov. 26, are now seeking to control the Iraqi-Syrian border stretching from the city of Qaim in Anbar province, in western Iraq, all the way to Rabia, west of Mosul.
Mohammed al-Basri, a PMU leader, was quoted in the Iranian Fars News Agency on Dec. 18 as saying, “The PMU’s main goal is to cut supply routes in the western Mosul area and secure the border with Syria.”
Abboud al-Issawi, a member of parliament for the State of Law Coalition, said in a media statement Oct. 17, “The PMU is an official security institution and is capable of maintaining the Iraqi border and there is no harm in cooperation with the rest of the security services [in the country] to this end.”
Issawi’s statements were general, whereas the PMU emphasized that it wants to maintain Iraq’s border with Syria, in particular. This raises several questions. Is this demand part of the plan to secure the route Iran wants to establish from its border with Iraq all the way to the Syrian-Iraqi border?
Sattar al-Saidi, a leader in the Iraqi Hezbollah party, was quoted in several media outlets as saying that the PMU made an official proposal to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, demanding that the PMU be allowed to help secure Iraq’s border with Syria.
Abadi, who is also the general commander of the Iraqi armed forces, has yet to give an answer. He does not seem to want to rush such a decision that might further complicate the political situation in Iraq.
Hadi al-Amiri, a leader in the PMU and head of the Badr Organization, said that the Islamic State (IS) has been expanding through the Iraqi-Syrian border. Amiri said Nov.1, “Our mission is to liberate the country and impose tight security measures on the border.”
Badr Razzak al-Haidari, a member of parliament for the Badr bloc, also called for the PMU to secure the Iraqi border. “It is of paramount importance for the PMU with the coordination with the country’s security services to secure the border to prevent terrorists from entering the liberated areas,” Haidairi said.
During a press conference Nov. 15, Abadi said, “There is a dire need to strengthen security measures on the Syrian-Iraqi border to prevent the reinfiltration of terrorists.” This statement opened the door for the PMU leaders to demand they be allowed to officially maintain security there; indeed, this is already happening on the ground as PMU troops have been controlling the border for weeks in some of the areas in Tal Afar that are under their control.
The PMU wants to control the borders with Syria to ensure the safety of more than 600 kilometers (373 miles) stretching from Qaim in Anbar province to Rabia in Ninevah province and to forbid IS from using these borders as a starting ground to attack Iraqi cities.
Spokespeople in the PMU are afraid that IS might use weapons it has hidden along the Iraqi-Syrian border to launch new attacks on Iraqi cities. Therefore, the forces are deployed along the borderline to tighten the noose on IS, whose military presence in Iraq is dwindling.
PMU control of the Syrian border would include part of the road Iran wants to build from the eastern Iraqi-Iranian border to the western Iraqi-Syrian border, in addition to facilitating the infiltration of Shiite militants fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
On Oct. 7, the Iraqi government deployed a military force affiliated with the Ministry of Defense toward the borders with Syria to secure them. The force included around 3,000 soldiers, indicating the importance of these borders for Iraq and the potential risks in case they are not secured.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the vice president of the Popular Mobilization Committee, had previously suggested that the PMU handle blocking the borders with Syria to prevent any supplies from reaching IS.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry, which has the Iraqi Border Police under it, is responsible for securing Iraq’s borders. For the PMU to handle border security, Abadi must give it authority to do so. Even if the commander agrees to hand over border enforcement to the PMU, the Ministry of Interior might object, thus leading to problems and conflicting interests over the geographical regions where Iraqi security formations operate.
Several questions must be asked. Can the PMU secure the borders? Does it have the trained forces and the right weapons to control the borderline? Will Iraq’s allies, including the United States, be OK with the PMU, which is allied with Iran, being in charge of a 600-kilometer border?
Abadi might not agree to the PMU’s request. He might grant the PMU the opportunity to stay close to the border to back the forces in charge, but he may not give the PMU the privilege of managing the boundary. The security as well as economic importance of these borders cannot be undermined.