Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s executive order of 1 July to integrate the Hashd Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), into the Iraqi army triggered an outburst of controversy in Iraq.
However, the majority of the people support the decision to reform the PMF and effectively discipline its component groups.
The prime minister’s order comes at a time when Iraq and the regional environment are facing numerous challenges in which the PMF played no small part in light of its contribution to fighting the Islamic State group (IS) in Iraq, its ideological connection to Iran, and Iranian practices in the region (in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq) and the repercussions of these practices on other Arab states and their interests.
The order primarily obliges all components of the PMF, a collection of militias that began to band together several years ago to fight IS, to subordinate themselves to the General Command of the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF), to relinquish their banners, insignia and other such emblems of separate identity and become incorporated into the Iraqi military structure as regiments, brigades, divisions and the like.
PMF members are to be assigned military ranks, in accordance with the IAF hierarchy, and to obey the orders of the IAF General Command which will appoint the head of the PMF Committee as their immediate supervisor.
The prime ministerial order gave PMF militias the choice of either abiding by its provisions or becoming unarmed political organisations. In addition, they must close all headquarters and offices carrying the name of a PMF faction.
The factions that choose to convert to political organisations must abide by the laws and regulations governing political parties, among which is the prohibition against bearing arms.
The PMF’s component militias must also close all economic offices, money-making operations and other such ventures that are not sanctioned under the new system governing the PMF.
Mahdi’s decree set a 31 July deadline for “drawing the final arrangements to complete the work in accordance with these points”, adding “orders will be issued subsequently to restructure the PMF Committee and its formations.”
Mahdi’s executive order followed through on a previous prime ministerial decree issued by former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi stipulating the state’s exclusive right to bear arms and ordering the dissolution of militias and the closure of all their bases and headquarters.
But the Mahdi decree was also motivated by a number of other factors related to regional developments, combined with the nature of some of the PMF’s activities in Iraq.
PMF units recently staged Katyusha missile strikes against US targets in Iraq in response to which the US designated a number of PMF militias and figures as terrorist entities.
The Iraqi government was deeply embarrassed by the attacks against oil companies operating in Basra governorate in June and by the incident of the storming of the Bahraini Embassy in Baghdad by some PMF factions.
More generally, the activities and behaviour of some PMF militias and members have stirred increasing discontent and criticism among Iraqi political and religious circles and, indeed, some military circles.
The executive order to integrate the PMF into the Iraqi army elicited some significant positive responses both at home and abroad. The Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr welcomed it as “an important thing and a good first step towards building a strong state”.
He stressed that the Saraya Al-Salam (Peace Companies), the militia that he, himself, founded, would be the first to fall in line with Mahdi’s decree.
Falih Al-Fayyadh, who heads the PMF Committee, declared his “absolute support” for the decree “because it truly serves the interests of security and stability in Iraq.
The PMF finds itself in harmony with the prime ministerial order.” Al-Fayyadh added that consultations were currently in progress with the prime minister to “complete the restructuring [of the PMF] in line with the prime ministerial order” and that the PMF “has begun to assume an official military character”.
He stressed that “the original purpose for creating the PMF was to defend the state. To fail to abide by this commitment is to violate this mission.”
At the regional and international level, the Iranian reaction is particularly significant given how major PMF factions align with Tehran ideologically.
Commenting on Iraq’s decision to integrate the PMF into the Iraqi army, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi told reporters at a press conference, “we respect the decisions made by Iraq’s government and consider it a domestic issue of Iraq. Iran has great respect for the Iraqi government and its armed forces and popular forces because of their courageous steadfastness against terrorism.”
The statement is an example of Iranian dissimulation since one of the aims of the integration of the PMF into the army is to clip Iranian wings in Iraq and prevent it from harming Iraq’s national security and interests both at home and abroad.
Washington, for its part, welcomed Mahdi’s decision and expressed its hope that the provisions of his executive order would be fulfilled.
So far, we can register the following observations in light of the reactions above and recent developments in general:
- As the reactions of Al-Sadr and Al-Fayyadh indicate the executive decree was only issued after the prime minister secured a broad base of political and religious support for its provisions.
- The integration of the PMF, which is a predominantly Shia umbrella organisation, aims to preserve and consolidate it by institutionalising it. This is important at this time in particular, when the Iraq army is still weak, in contrast to the PMF’s military strength as well as it economic strength.
- The decision to integrate the PMF is largely a formality undertaken to placate the US which has been angered by some of the actions of the pro-Iranian PMF.
- It is unlikely that Mahdi’s decree will severely undermine Iranian influence in Iraq because Tehran has forged a large network of support within the executive, legislative and judicial institutions of the state.
- The integration of the PMF into the military could work less to regulate the PMF than to strengthen the PMF’s influence in the military establishment.
Nevertheless, a number of factors could obstruct the implementation of the executive order. Firstly, it is still a decree and has not yet been passed into law.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the legislation required to implement it will also require increasing the IAF’s budget in order to cover the expenses of the integration process, which would strain the government’s resources at a time when it already has a large budget deficit.
The process of incorporating the PMF contingents into the army will involve, among other things, enlisting their troops in new military training camps after which they would be reassigned to existing army units which, in turn, could entail measures to restructure and retrain troops across the military establishment as a whole.
Moreover, it is also envisioned that the process will be applied to the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, thereby “unifying the Iraqi military creed beneath the banner of the defence of a single nation and loyalty to a single nation”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq to unify military structure