The spokesman of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a militia unit within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) with close ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s decree giving PMF members equal salaries and benefits as those of regular military personnel, but emphasized that the PMF paramilitary forces will will not be merged into any of the country’s security institutions. According to AAH spokesman Naim al-Abudi, the PMF – also known by its Arabic name Hashd al-Shaabi – has 140,000 members, including 122,000 combatants. In an interview with pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, the AAH commander argued that PMF forces need to remain in Mosul and surrounding areas to deal with ISIS remnants. “We do not agree to Hashd being merged into the ministries of interior and defense because this would mean weakening and abolishing it. And this is not appropriate.”According to Iran’s Fars News Agency, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of AAH, also welcomed Abadi’s decision to raise the paramilitary forces’ salaries.
Comment: The Iraqi prime minister last week issued a decree formalizing the inclusion of the Hashd al-Shaabi forces in the country’s security forces. According to the Abadi’s order, the paramilitary forces will receive equivalent salaries and other benefits as the country’s military personnel under the Ministry of Defense. The PMF forces from now on also can enroll in military colleges and institutions and will be subject to the country’s military service laws and regulations. The announcement by the Baghdad government came as Washington and regional Sunni states express the concern that the growing power and influence of the PMF, particularly units linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, will undermine Iraqi stability and sectarian balance in post-ISIS Iraq. The Iraqi parliament in November 2016 had approved a law granting legal status to the PMF as an integral part of the country’s security forces.
The PMF consists of militia forces largely from Shiite but also other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. While some PMF units are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, many prominent groups within PMF have close ties with Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. What makes Sunni Iraqis and regional states particularly worried is that, despite PMF’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units within the PMF – such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization – that have emerged as the most influential actors in the wake of the ISIS collapse. These groups have committed sectarian violence against Iraqi Sunnis, and engaged in acts of terrorism against American troops before the 2011 US withdrawal. Last October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the Iranian-backed militias and IRGC personnel to “go home” as the ISIS fight was nearing its end.
Tehran, in contrast, pressured the Baghdad government not to disband the PMF after the ISIS battle was over. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asked Abadi during the latter’s visit to Tehran last year to keep PMF and integrate the forces into the military against the advice of Washington and its regional allies.
Some PMF leaders still take their instructions and orders from Tehran than Baghdad. Thus their full integration into the Iraqi military will help further consolidate Tehran’s long-term influence in the Arab country. And unlike in Syria, Iran will not have to bear the burden of providing billions of dollars annually to its proxies in Iraq because they receive their regular salaries from the Baghdad government.