BAGHDAD — Sunnis — regular citizens as well as parliamentarians and politicians — have been demanding the withdrawal of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) from their areas, a request that has intensified in light of parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12. On Jan. 15, some Sunni personalities publicly called on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to order the PMU out of Sunni governorates to ensure an uncompromised voting process.
The PMU factions continue to maintain a significant presence in some areas of Diyala, Ninevah, Salahuddin and Anbar after helping liberate them from the Islamic State (IS), which seized some one-third of Iraqi territory in 2014. These factions believe they have the right to remain in Sunni areas as the country's “liberators,” noting that they too are Iraqis, not some foreign, occupying force. They also claim that their presence is needed to prevent the re-emergence of terror organizations and reprisals by IS supporters or members, because the Sunni tribal forces are too small and need their support.
The PMU factions have dismissed demands by local Sunni authorities and Sunni political parties in Baghdad to evacuate hundreds of locations in the liberated areas. That said, the Sunni parties have no authority over the PMU, and the factions have not been ordered to withdraw by Abadi's government. Baghdad so far has ignored the Sunnis' complaints, generally viewing the PMU as part of the nation's security forces, deployable anywhere on Iraqi territory.
Some Sunni residents have expressed concerns about freely casting their votes, as they feel intimidated by the presence of PMU fighters. Dhafer al-Ani, head of the Sunni Mutahidoun bloc, claimed in a media statement Jan. 28, “The militias could affect the voting process and influence Sunni voters to cast their ballots in favor of certain candidates.”
Some members of the PMU factions have resigned to form political wings and have registered them to participate in elections. It is unclear whether they can actually influence Sunni voting in their areas. The PMU lists formed the Fath alliance, which includes the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and others. There is no indication the PMU plans to deploy for the elections, and they are stationed in barracks.
PMU spokesman Karim al-Nouri told Al-Monitor, “The security stability, which was established thanks to the PMU factions' sacrifices, has paved the way for holding the elections. What’s more, the PMU [will] not interfere in the political affairs and elections.”
Writer and media figure Ihsan al-Shammari seconded Nouri. “I do not believe the PMU would affect the electoral process or pressure voters to cast their ballot in favor of anyone. As per the directives of the prime minister, who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces, the military institution is to remain on the sidelines of the political sphere. In addition, there will not be any room for political pressuring given the electronic voting in the coming elections.”
Shammari added, “Those claiming that the security forces will affect the elections are being hyperbolic, maybe because they realize that they have lost a lot of their popularity.”
The PMU presence in Sunni areas has been an issue for some time as many Sunni political parties view the PMU factions as sectarian militias, even if, as Shiite security and political parties emphasize, they helped liberate Iraqi territory from IS.
Many of the Sunni parties do not accept the assertions by PMU representatives that they have a crucial security role to play. Instead, they point to electoral legislation that parliament passed in January 2017, confirming the dates and other details surrounding elections, including that the government is obliged to be the only one armed with weapons during election campaigns. Thus, the Sunnis have been pushing the government to order the PMU factions to withdraw from the IS-liberated areas as a prerequisite for holding successful elections.
Ahmad al-Masari, a leader in the Sunni Forces Union, told Al-Monitor, “The continued presence of the armed PMU factions in the liberated Sunni areas means the militarization of the elections. In order to guarantee the holding of fair elections, armed factions should remain on the sidelines.”
Maj. Gen. Najm Jubouri, commander of Ninevah operations for the Iraqi military, told Al-Monitor, “The claims that the Sunni forces fear competing [politically] with the PMU in the elections are baseless. The PMU tasks are related to security and not to politics. The PMU are not withdrawing from Ninevah regardless of the holding of elections.
According to political analyst and writer Wathiq al-Jabri, “Many residents of Sunni areas had migrated to Shiite areas, where they formed bonds with PMU families and found respect. Some of them have become related via marriages, and others volunteered in the PMU. This national harmony is what scares Sunni forces in the upcoming elections.” Jabri told Al-Monitor that this situation is leading the Sunnis to push against the PMU.
As the elections approach, there is no sign of an impending PMU withdrawal. Perhaps all concerned stakeholders will soon let go of the issue and move forward with campaigning since a federal court dismissed Sunni requests to postpone the elections to give them more time to prepare.
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