Iraq Pulse

Amid rising protests, PMU prevents confrontation with US

Article Summary
The Popular Mobilization Units try to distance themselves from the current confrontation between Iran and US in order to preserve PMU interests in Iraq.

While protests have been taking place in various Shiite areas in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have been avoiding confrontation with the demonstrators to prevent clashes and the loss of PMU social bases.

At the same time, the PMU has been working to improve relations with the United States to receive guarantees that their locations will not face further blows. In an attempt to end tensions and avoid clashes between the PMU and US forces in Iraq, PMU leaders are trying to reassure the United States that its interests in Iraq are intact. The visit of PMU head Faleh al-Fayadh to Washington in early October was a clear indication of the above.

On Oct. 20, Rahman al-Jubouri, a senior researcher at the Regional Center of The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, said at a press conference, “Fayadh spoke to the Americans about the new structure of the PMU and told them it is part of the Iraqi state and will be close to the decision-making circles. This message aimed at reassuring the US that its diplomatic mission and interests will not be jeopardized.”

The timing of Fayadh’s visit was critical for the PMU, as its militias appeared weak due to the blows they were dealt, especially in the battles against the Islamic State. Fayadh was trying to maintain the power and influence of the PMU.

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Iraqi governmental sources told Al-Monitor on Oct. 15, “Fayadh visited Washington as head of the PMU, and he wanted to reassure Americans and receive guarantees from them regarding the PMU.”

The sources added, “Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi sent Fayadh to end the attacks on the PMU arms’ warehouses reportedly carried out by the US and Israel. According to some information that Fayadh gave Abdul Mahdi, the reassurances succeeded and reached Washington, and he received similar vibes.”

The PMU considers the US forces “occupants,” and some factions are still making threats against the US presence in Iraq and have pushed in recent months for legislation to expel American forces from Iraq. Still, the PMU did not target the US forces or embassy in Baghdad. Only some missiles fell in US surroundings in the past few months, without causing losses; no one claimed responsibility for the missile attacks.

The political, public and economic gains that the PMU have achieved since its creation in 2014 are massive. For that reason, PMU leaders do not want to jeopardize these gains by confronting the United States or any other party. They are well aware that any clash with Washington might affect these gains or take them away. Americans do not want their interests in Iraq to be under constant threat.

Jubouri told Al-Monitor, “Fayadh wanted to reassure Washington regarding its interests in Iraq and he wanted guarantees in exchange that the PMU will not be targeted. They were both seeking reassurance.”

In the past few months, the PMU arms’ warehouses were hit by airstrikes, and Abdul Mahdi accused Israel of being responsible. He had said a few days earlier, “The government has no clue who is responsible for the shelling.”

The US forces and the PMU operated in close proximity to each other during the war on the Islamic State, which indicates that they do not want to clash. So far, US and PMU interests are similar — such as their shared fight against the Islamic State and terrorism — and while PMU threats have been made against the United States, they have apparently not been overtly acted upon.

In 2018, the head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, told Al-Monitor, “We did not target the US forces in Iraq or their interests since 2011, when they left the country as occupants.” Asaib Ahl al-Haq was one of the many militias that joined the PMU in 2014.

Journalist Abbas al-Yasiri, former member of the board of trustees at the Iraqi Media Network, told Al-Monitor, “One of the issues Fayadh discussed during his visit to Washington is the PMU and protection of US interests in Iraq. He reassured Washington in this regard and asserted that Iraq is seeking balanced relations that would also preserve US interests.”

He added, “The Washington visit and the reassurances will not cause any tensions in relations between Fayadh and his deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Even parties against US policy in Iraq do not want clashes with Washington or attacks from it.”

Observera say they believe Washington wants to build positive ties with the PMU, at first through stopping the enmity between them, and ultimately winning the PMU over. With that, Washington would tame the PMU and curb Iranian influence in Iraq.

Akil Abba, an assistant professor at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, said, “Institutionalizing the PMU would guarantee that the forces will not confront the US. But Fayadh’s verbal promises that the PMU will not target the US won’t be taken seriously unless the PMU is institutionalized. Americans want tangible steps rather than verbal promises.”

The leader of the PMU’s Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, said Sept. 29, “We do not blame any party for shelling the PMU’s locations.” His words send a message to the United States that the PMU leaders are not officially accusing it or Israel of targeting their locations.

The PMU factions mostly do not want to clash with the United States in Iraq or target its interests. The PMU militias are convinced that Washington is neither friend nor foe, especially given the exchanges of messages between PMU leaders and the US Embassy through EU ambassadors and UN delegates to Iraq.

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Mustafa Saadoun is an Iraqi journalist covering human rights and also the founder and director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights. He formerly worked as a reporter for the Iraqi Council of Representatives. On Twitter: @SaadoonMustafa

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