The Future of Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq
Four Iraqi militant groups affiliated with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq, said they are withdrawing from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in a move that could result in a shake-up of the military organization. The four paramilitary forces, usually called the Shrine Units, are known to have an uneasy relationship with Iranian-backed militant groups in the country.
In a joint statement issued April 23, the Abbas Combat Division, Imam Ali Combat Division, Ali Akbar Brigade and Ansar al-Marja’iya Brigade said their transfer out of the PMU was authorized by a decree signed by outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who also is the commander in chief of the armed forces.
According to the April 22 decree addressed to Faleh al-Fayadh, the Iraqi national security adviser and head of the PMU Commission, the four units will be directly under the commander in chief’s office, administratively and operationally.
One day after the Shrine Units’ joint statement, the commander in chief’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, said that Abdul Mahdi was not consulted about the statement and that the decree is strictly about the administrative and operational arrangements of the Shrine Units. He said the prime minister does not approve of other details mentioned in the statement.
The most controversial piece of information in the joint statement is about the intention of the Shrine Units to help facilitate other forces to withdraw from the PMU. The statement says the command of the Shrine Units “is considering joining the rest of the forces and brigades that are willing to do so according to national criteria, legal structures and constitutional obligations.”
Splitting from the PMU takes away a great amount of the religious legitimacy the PMU has enjoyed for the past six years. It is not surprising that some Iran-affiliated media platform have been trying to frame the Shrine Units' defection as a move done on individual commanders' accord without the approval of Sistani.
Losing the legitimacy bestowed by Sistani’s approval will not harm the pro-Iran groups just in the military sphere. In politics, they can lose some of their support among Shiite constituents. Some of the pro-Iran PMU militias such as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are major players in parliament. In the last parliamentary elections, they used their role in fighting the Islamic State as a selling point to gain votes. The fact that Sistani is not satisfied with their performance within the PMU can be read by the Shiite public as an indicator of his dissatisfaction with their political performance, too, setting the table for them to lose some of their constituents.
All of these developments are happening while the Iran-backed groups are suffering from the loss of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC's Quds Force, and PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were assassinated by the US military in early January. Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor, has not been able to fill the void left by Soleimani’s departure just yet.