The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq exist within a political and religious framework that make it difficult for the Iraqi state to control the group. Some Iraqis are asking if it would be possible for the Iraqi parliament to appoint the PMU's presidential body and brigade commanders, as is the case with other Iraqi security and military institutions.
After several PMU warehouses mysteriously exploded this past month, a crisis interrupted in Iraq, exposing divisions within the PMU, in particular the split between the PMU chief Falah al-Fayyad and its deputy chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The split between Fayyad and Muhandis has renewed the push toward parliamentary appointments within the PMU, contrary to the mode of operations over the past five years. Currently, the PMU presidential body appoints commanders based on state, ideological and political grounds, without consulting parliament.
“Once the PMU is restructured, PMU commanders will be appointed by parliament," Iraqi politician Ihsan al-Shammari said Aug. 27. "The PMU law issued in 2016 has been harmonized with military laws. What is applied to the Iraqi army now applies to the PMU.”
He added, “Military and security leaders in Iraq are subject to parliament’s vote, and so should the PMU commanders. Once the new structure is approved, parliament will be appointing commanders and those with special grades in the PMU.” By special grades, these are special-ranking officials in Iraq such as the heads of independent commissions and also the PMU heads, who are not elected by parliament.
The Iraqi Constitution states that parliament shall approve the appointment of those with special grades. While the PMU presidential body members and brigade commanders are deemed special grades, they have yet to be appointed by parliament.
Parliament did not appoint Fayyad and Muhandis. They have been in office for almost five years without being subject to a parliamentary vote.
Yahya al-Kubaisi, an adviser to the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, said that “having parliament appoint the PMU presidential body and brigade commanders would be unrealistic.” The PMU factions, he added, "follow religious, ideological and political references that have nothing to do with the structure of the state.”
Kubaisi told Al-Monitor, “Any attempt that goes in this direction will remain a pro forma attempt, just like the PMU law and the consecutive Diwan orders [issued directly by the prime minister], which merely served … to legitimize these factions instead of actually integrating them into the state structure.”
Rahman al-Jubouri, a senior researcher at the Regional Studies Center at the American University of Sulaimaniyah, partly concurred with Kubaisi. He believes that the current appointments in the PMU are “doctrinal.”
“The current appointments are doctrinal and only suitable for recruits," Jubouri told Al-Monitor. "They do not fit an army that follows military orders and a specific discipline. The PMU is based on the philosophy of halal and haram, not the philosophy of the state.”
It is unlikely parliament will appoint PMU leaders for now, even if they are affiliated with the Iraqi state and have issued a law. The fact remains that the PMU is composed of factions with one orientation, and most of these factions may not even believe in the concept of the state.
Iraqi legal expert Tareq Harb told Al-Monitor that the presentation of names of commanders and security services in the Iraqi parliament has been “postponed” until the completion of some details related to internal structures and regulations.
He told Al-Monitor, “Regarding the PMU, no appropriate action has been taken to implement the law, and the execution of the Diwani order has been postponed. In other words, having parliament appoint PMU commanders looks complicated.”
Given Iran's considerable influence inside Iraq, it would be difficult for the PMU brigade commanders to be opposed to or incompatible with Iran. The PMU itself is split between those linked to Iran and those subject to the orders of the Iraqi state. If the PMU is integrated into the Iraqi state, the Iran-backed factions will no longer be cards in Tehran's hands.
While the Iraqi Constitution states that parliament shall approve the appointment of those with special grades, the PMU Commission Act of 2016 did not explicitly state this, as it kept the matter flexible and open to interpretation.
Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Voting for the bodies and those with special grades has been postponed until Oct. 24, and the PMU will be among these bodies. The Fatah Alliance, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, will vote for the PMU presidential body and brigade commanders.”
There is great tension plaguing Iraqi political circles regarding political quotas and appointments to ensure political "balance." The PMU will also be subject to this process. As a result, the PMU will be a site of conflict among Iraqi political parties, and it will become the purview of Shiite parties, more specifically the Fatah Alliance, which includes a number of PMU factions. The process of appointing the PMU presidential body and brigade commanders will be limited to a number of Shiite individuals and factions, and the process of having parliament appoint these positions will have remained a pro forma mechanism.