Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Popular Mobilization Units: A Threat to the Development of Political Stability and Democracy in Iraq?

The flag of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Sha'bi
Max Weber famously defined the state as that "human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory."  Many states have not been afforded this luxury.  An example is Italy where what began as social movements to provide services and protection for local constituencies, such as La Cosa Nostra (Mafia), Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta, later morphed into organizations specializing in protecting powerful and wealthy clients, becoming a nationally powerful crime syndicates in the process.

Iraq has likewise seen the rise of powerful militias, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) or 
al-Hashad al-Shacbi since they were established following a fatwa (religious decree) from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2014.  For a discussion of the Islamic State’s rise, see my A Comprehensive Plan to Defeat the Islamic State

The PMUs, which number 60 odd militias at the moment, are mostly Shi a but include some Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen units as well. The key concern is that the PMUs are designated by the Iraqi government as “state affiliated organizations.” This means in effect that they are largely independent of central government control.

What are the implications for the Iraqi state being unable to control these armed militias, some of which are transforming themselves into economic actors.  To what extent is a state within a state being built in Iraq?  Can the PMUs be brought under control or are they now a permanent fixture of Iraq’s political system?

On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi announced that all PMUs would be brought under control of the central government.  Many Iraqi and non-Iraqi analysts were skeptical that cAbd al-Mahdi proclamation would have any serious impact on the PMUs. This is especially true in light of the criticism of cAbd al-Mahdi’s cabinet which, to date, has failed to implement the reforms it promised when it took office.

Recently, Falih al-Fayyad, National Security Advisor, indicated that all PMU “offices” in Iraqi cities and towns must close their offices and their members must remove themselves from urban areas to designated bases.  What seems of greatest concern underlying this decision is that the PMUs have become actively involved in Iraq’s economic and financial affairs.  While they were originally formed as defensive units, they now are trying to translate that legitimacy into economic gain.  Reflecting a growing concern, Ayatollah cAli al-Sistani issued a statement in April 2019 warning the PMUs to “stay away from economics.”

In the process of policing Iraq’s cities, such as Mosul which was recaptured from the Dacish in 2017,  the PMUs have established “committees” (lijan) or “offices” (maktabib). This unofficial organizations have acting engaged in raising funds. To cover the high costs of sustaining the militias as well as providing the PMU leaders with lucrative salaries.  PMUs engage in trade, auctions, and real estate transactions.  Thus, the Iraqi governments efforts to close these offices in urban areas is to prevent the PMUs from entrenching its economic power.

Mosul offers the PMUs lucrative business opportunities. With massive reconstruction underway, the PMUs have pushed their way into the process using force and blackmail to control the flow of funds coming into the city.  Business owners in Mosul complain that the PMUs subject them to extortion and often force them to take on a militia as a commercial partner.

For example, Ikhlas al-Dulaymi, a parliamentarian from Ninawa province, accused Qais al-Khazali, 
leader of  the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, of forcing a Mosul business man of accepting it as a partner 
with a 30% stake in the contract. al-Dulaymi also implied that the sinking of a ferry in the Tigris  
River in March, 2019, which caused 103 deaths, was not due to navigational negligence but the 
security problems created by the PMUs in the city.

Also disturbing to Iraqis and their governments is the control over territories by the PMUs which 
are off limits to the Iraqi Army or government officials. The most well know is the city of Jarf al-Sakhr, in the northern part of Babil Province, which the PMUs have controlled since 2014.  The city’s 100,000 residents have yet to be able to return to their homes.
 On several occasions, Iraqi Army units, parliamentarians and other government officials have been 
prevented from entering the city.  This has made many Iraqi politicians and analysts believe that the 
city has prisons, and makes weapons and explosives in workshops with material supplied by Iran. 
Indeed, Jarf al-Sakhr is an example of a “mini” state within a state.