Expanding from the battlefield to the soccer field, Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) plan to establish their own sports club to participate in local, Arab and regional tournaments.
The PMU, an umbrella organization comprising dozens of mostly Shiite militia groups, fought alongside Iraqi government forces against the Islamic State. It became involved in politics by backing some candidates in the May parliamentary elections as part of the Fatah Alliance. The PMU has close ties to Iran.
The PMU contacted a number of athletes to begin developing the general framework for the club. These athletes include Younis Mahmoud, former captain of the Iraqi national soccer team, which brought Iraq its most impressive sports achievement: winning the Asian Cup in 2007.
“Mahmoud could be the administrative president or founder of the PMU sports club," the PMU media office told Al-Monitor.
Mahmoud has been seeking an administrative position in Iraqi sports institutions. He failed to score the position of Iraqi Football Association vice president, and was not chosen to become head of the administrative board of al-Talaba club, where he had played.
The PMU recently met with Mahmoud and his colleague, Samer Saeid, also a former international player. They discussed plans for the club, which will include other sports in addition to soccer, like martial arts.
“We have already started the official procedures for establishing the club. We got initial approval from the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The club will be directly affiliated with the PMU,” said Muhannad al-Aqabi, PMU media director. He noted, however, “No agreement has been reached yet on the name of the club.”
But a PMU source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The club will not be named after the PMU. It will be called the People's Club," possibly to keep its image separate from political and military issues.
During an Aug. 14 visit to its headquarters, Mahmoud praised the PMU. “Athletes and fighters complement each other,” he said.
Al-Monitor talked to Saeid, who accompanied Mahmoud during that visit. “The club will be present in local forums if it applies professional mechanisms and abides by the rules and regulations of sports clubs,” he said.
The PMU is advertising the club and seems to be gaining the support of even non-Shiite and non-PMU politicians. Rizan Sheikh, a former parliament member with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, confirmed this, stressing "the PMU’s right to establish its own sports club.”
Starting a PMU club would seem to follow a trend. The air force and army sports clubs are affiliated with the Ministry of Defense. The police sports club is affiliated with the Interior Ministry. The Ministry of Transport sponsors al-Zawra Club, and the Baghdad club is affiliated with the mayor's office.
“The PMU has a group of highly skilled players," Saeid said in a Sept. 14 video report broadcast by the PMU media. "Their skills can be invested in the club to promote Iraqi [soccer].”
The PMU, which has a large popular base in Iraqi society, may attract a wide audience for its sports activities, which could also increase the number of fans of other sports in Iraq.
But Jabbar Hashim, an assistant coach for the Iraqi Air Force Club, told Al-Monitor it could take months or years for the PMU to establish a broad fan base. "Fans are already supporting clubs established decades ago,” he noted. "The club must rely on experience and competencies at its founding stages if it wants to be a strong competitor to other clubs."
Once the PMU club gets off the ground, it could pave the way for its armed factions to form their own clubs, separate from the PMU. Asaib Ahl al-Haq — an Iran-backed PMU militia — already has a martial arts club called al-Ahad, named after the militia’s official TV channel.
A famous farmer goalkeeper for the Iraqi national soccer team, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “In early October an intermediary approached me to meet with Qais al-Khazali, [secretary-general] of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, about establishing al-Ahad [soccer] club."
Launching a sports club falls within the “popular diplomacy” approach adopted by PMU factions to increase their favor among Iraqis and foreign countries. The PMU doesn't want its image to be restricted to the military field, so it's seeking to build a network of cultural and sports relations in its communities.
However, it could be difficult to disassociate a PMU sports club from politics or partisan conflicts. Instead, it could end up creating a popular base that brings politics into sports.
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