Proposed US sanctions on PMU put Iraq in tough spot

Proposed sanctions against factions of the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units would place the Iraqi government squarely in the middle of a tug of war between Iran and the United States.

al-monitor Shiite Popular Mobilization Units celebrate on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Nov 28, 2017

The conflict between the United States and Iran is causing new problems for the Iranian-backed armed Shiite factions in Iraq. But cracking down on the militias might harm Washington’s interests in Baghdad and spark a crisis between the Iraqi government and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is trying to strike a balance to tame armed Shiite factions and earn US support, Iran hawks in Washington are seeking to add armed factions affiliated with the PMU to the list of terrorist organizations.

In the US House of Representatives, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced a bill in early November called “Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act of 2017” that calls for imposing terrorism-related sanctions on Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The bill, which has only attracted five cosponsors to date, was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 3.

Before Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba was formed in 2013, the United States designated its leader Akram al-Kaabi as a terrorist in 2008 per Executive Order No. 13438, on the grounds of “causing chaos in Iraq and threatening the stability and security of the alliance forces which were in Iraq before retreating completely in 2011.”

Poe introduced his bill less than a month after US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as a “terrorist” following reports that he’s opened a recruiting station in Kirkuk.

Recent statements of various US Congress members indicate that they hope to designate additional Shiite factions as terrorist organizations.

While a harsher tone is being adopted in Iraqi statements against Washington, member of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Hanan al-Fatalawi called on the Iraqi Foreign Ministry Nov. 17 to summon the US ambassador to Baghdad to find out the reasons behind “the future US war” on the PMU.

The fight that Washington is waging against some PMU factions will open a new political battlefront on Iraqi territories with dangerous indicators such as the reaction of these factions and the stance that Abadi’s government might take.

The PMU-affiliated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba accused Abadi’s government of taking orders from the US Congress, which described the movement as “a group affiliated with the Iraqi security formations on the terrorist lists,” according to its spokesman Nasr al-Shumari.

Hashem al-Musawi, another spokesman for Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, told Al-Monitor, “The United States is trying as hard as possible to foil the Islamist resistance project. But we will not stand idly by facing these classifications, and we will take the right stance at the right time.”

Although Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba released a statement priding itself on being designated as a terrorist organization, a threatening tone prevailed indicating potential impediment to Washington’s interests in Baghdad.

The United States considers the Iranian-affiliated Shiite factions a threat to its interests in Iraq, and even in Syria. For that reason, it wants to control the movement of these groups as part of the vision of the Iraqi government. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are also present on Syrian territories.

It seems Rep. Poe made a smart decision by seeking to classify the two factions fighting in Syria as terrorist entities while ignoring other factions that are no less dangerous. Washington would then justify its decision to the Iraqi government by saying that these factions are fighting illegally in Syria.

The PMU did not notice this distinction, as its spokesman Ahmad al-Asadi condemned the bill listing Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq as terrorist organizations, noting, “The two movements are affiliated with the PMU and are part of the Iraqi state.”

Asadi told Al-Monitor, “The US decision targets the resistance factions that have played a huge role in the war against the Islamic State [IS], which constituted a global threat.”

The US designation of PMU leaders and movements as terrorists would inevitably embarrass Abadi’s government once again. Some consider this designation part of Washington’s conflict with Tehran in the Middle East.

Adnan al-Sarraj, a Shiite politician close to Abadi’s government, told Al-Monitor, “The PMU is part of Iraq’s military institution and has played a key role in the war on terrorism. The United States should not involve us in its tug of war with Iran.”

Al-Monitor found out Nov. 18 in Baghdad that Naim al-Aboudi, the spokesperson for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, had said that the movement asked the Iraqi government to take an official stance regarding the US bill that offends the Iraqi unity and sovereignty.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, established and headed by Qais al-Khazali, considers the US bill “insignificant” because the movement is committed to national laws.

Youssef Ibrahim, an independent expert who follows up on Iraqi affairs, rules out any military clash in the near future in Iraq between US-blacklisted factions and US forces in the areas of these factions’ deployment.

Any US insistence on classifying the PMU factions as terrorist entities will complicate the domestic Iraqi situation in the post-IS phase and risk creating a new US conflict with the armed factions that have tight relations with Iran, the United States’ archenemy.

Abadi has taken several measures to bring the PMU under government control, including the PMU law passed by the parliament in 2016 that disassociates all PMU factions from their leaders and affiliated political parties and brings them under the leadership of the prime minister.

The Iraqi government does not want to lose Washington as a strategic ally, which led the international coalition in the war against IS.

Correction: Nov. 29, 2017. An earlier version of this article left it unclear that proposed legislation to designate certain Shiite militias in Iraq as terrorist entities is only in its very early stages in Congress.

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