Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, aiming to cement a presence in the country's government and security institutions, has persuaded incumbent Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to ensure salaries for its fighters.
The PMU is a coalition of mostly Shiite armed groups in Iraq, many of them close to Iran, that fought the Islamic State alongside Iraqi forces.
PMU leaders sent requests Nov. 6 to Abdul Mahdi, complaining about budget allocations for the PMU. That same day, Abdul Mahdi’s government decided to place PMU salaries on the same scale as those of Iraq's police and armed forces. With that, the PMU achieved not only a structured pay plan, but an acknowledgement of its standing with the new government.
The PMU hadn't been so successful during the mandate of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with whom it had a history of tense relations and salary disputes. Abadi dismissed PMU leader Faleh al-Fayadh on Aug. 30, before Fayadh's term ended. But an Iraqi administrative court suspended Abadi's decision after the PMU lobbied for Fayadh's return.
With their successful bid to procure financial guarantees, PMU political forces within the Fatah Alliance are now seeking more political gains in the new government by securing the interior minister position for Fayadh. Fayadh has Iran's backing and is Abdul Mahdi's choice, but influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has vetoed his selection.
Abdul Hadi Saadawi, a parliament member from the State of Law Coalition, told Al-Monitor, “The PMU factions’ gain of financial privileges and full salaries for the fighters in the 2019 draft budget indicates that they hold more political power with Abdul Mahdi. The latter heralded his mandate with a meeting with PMU leaders and voiced support for them.”
Saadawi added, “The stance of the new prime minister in supporting the PMU is reasonable in the political equation. The PMU will topple the [prime minister] if he tries to weaken them or jeopardize them. Abdul Mahdi is well aware of the need to avoid angering the factions and ensuring good ties with them to continue his electoral mandate and make it successful.”
Firas Zwein, an economic affairs specialist at the Justice Ministry, told Al-Monitor that two factors helped settle the issue of the PMU’s financial allocations: "Abdul Mahdi’s need for the PMU’s weight in completing the cabinet, [thereby] ensuring its continuity and [the PMU's] support for its decisions; and public calls, especially from Shiites, to be fair to fighters who defended the country, most of whom hail from the center and south, where protests are occurring over a lack of services.”
However, the prime minister might face a particularly large hurdle, Zwein said. "[His] talk about seeking financial sources to ensure the full salaries of the PMU fighters indicates a lack of sustainable funding sources. It is true oil prices have increased, but oil is a volatile asset that cannot be trusted.”
For now, the government has apparently succeeded in overcoming the funding obstacle. PMU spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi told Al-Monitor, "[Abdul Mahdi] decided to allocate funds from the emergency budget to pay the salaries of PMU members until the process is regulated permanently. This is the way salaries of the army, police and security institution members are paid, and consequently the PMU, which has officially become part of these institutions.”
He told Al-Monitor, “The PMU supports Abdul Mahdi’s government because he was fair to the fighters and granted them their rights, unlike the previous government. The PMU and its political forces are supporting the government in return, and have no intention of seeing it fail.”
Hanin al-Qado, a member of the Fatah Alliance, also believes Abdul Mahdi's decision “holds political meaning because it [makes] the PMU an official security element." He added, "The US and its allies in the region are not comfortable with this move because they consider the PMU factions sectarian and affiliated with Iran."
Qado described the decision to ensure the PMU salaries as of Jan. 1 as “a form of autonomy and rejection of any foreign meddling or regional pressure.”
The United States might have unwittingly helped Abdul Mahdi and PMU leaders reach a consensus. The US State Department recently tweeted that Iran "must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.” The tweet stirred angry criticism from Iraq's Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement Nov. 3 rejecting "interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, especially domestic security reform.”
A spokesperson for the PMU faction Asaeb Ahl al-Haq said, “Washington and others’ attempts to stir strife between the factions and the PMU will only strengthen the trust between the PMU, the government and the other political forces. Abdul Mahdi will be able to complete his cabinet, especially as the PMU factions are ready to fight terrorism on the borders and enhance internal security if the prime minister asks them to. Abdul Mahdi will then be able to allocate time to manage other crises in the country.”
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