Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU): Can they be integrated into the Iraqi security forces?

Introduction

On June 3, 2020, several Iraqi media outlets reported that the Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Falih Al-Fayyadh, issued a circular letter that included a series of instructions addressed to all PMU factions, obligating them to terminate their political and non-political affiliation with all parties and organizations, to close all their headquarters within Iraq’s cities, and to replace their political names with numbers, like other units in the Iraqi Armed Forces. These instructions came in line with Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s endeavors to curb the Iranian influence in Iraq, particularly its support to the PMU factions, by the integrating these militias into the Iraqi Armed Forces. 

ISIS on convoy

Background

In 2014 the Islamic State Of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had swarmed over most of western  and northern Iraq in which the Iraqi army had collapsed, and it seemed Baghdad itself was threatened to be overrun. At that point the senior and highly respected Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, issued a fatwa, an Islamic ruling in June2014 calling for any Iraqi man capable of carrying arms to defend the Iraqi cities. Based on this Fatwa, thousands of Shi’a Iraqis rallied to defend Baghdad. The fatwa paved the way for the establishments of what is now known as the PMU.  

The PMU took part in a number of battles against ISIS. While the bulk of the success against the ISIS were scored by the largely US trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), the newly formed PMU launched a propaganda which convinced the Iraqi public that they were the saviors of Iraq. The CTS which one of its division is known as the “golden” division, lost many casualties in urban combat of retaking Mosul. Under the Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, the CTS was viewed as a possible threat to his regime and were not entirely reconstituted at the level it was before the Mosul campaign.

In 2016 the Iraqi government officially approved a law incorporating the PMU in the country’s armed forces but was allowed to operate independently. The law has not been implemented till now. However, the PMU has the official status of any soldier or officer in the Iraqi armed forces in terms of pay and benefits.

Over the past years the PMU received additional funding from the Iranian government, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ( IRGC) and its Special Warfare unit the al Quds under Qassem Al Suliemani who flitted around the Middle East encouraging and promoting Shi’a comet units in Syria and Iraq became somewhat of a Che Guevara persona, especially in the Western press. His killing was a monumental success for the US in that his myth had reached the point where he seemed invincible. The Iranian push to control the Levant was seriously damaged, but by no means eliminated.

PMU composition

There is no totally reliable source on the number of semi-independent organizations that are part of the PMU. They are depicted as having between 47 to 67 separate organizations. Generally, they are divided into three main movements. The first is a generally Iraqi nationalist oriented wing loyal Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Al-Sistani, a cleric who  takes an opposing view to the Iran’s Willayet-al Faqih doctrine which the rest of PMU factions follow.

Al-Sistani’s PMU wing is called the Atabat Divisions (Shrine Divisions) and they consist of four combat troop units and have no links with Iranian political or military institutions in Iraq. They have about 18000 full time militiamen and many thousands with personal weapons. The Atabat has withdrew recently from the PMU citing disagreement with Iran-backed groups.  They are not involved in any violence acts against Iraqis nor the U.S. forces. They do not consider the United States as an enemy. Their withdrawal from the PMU severely damaged the religious legitimacy of the Iran-backed factions.

The Iranian wing militias far outnumber the Al Sistani loyalists, composing some 40 organizations of vary degrees of loyalty to Iran with the major organizations, of which the most anti-American are the Kataib Hezbollah, which has about 18000 “regulars” and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq ( AAH) which has somewhat less. Both have years of experience ambushing and using offset weaponry against American troops, with much of the weaponry supplied by Iran. Especially effective were the armor piercing projectiles which killed a number of US troops. They were trained by the Iranian special forces, the Quds organization. They are totally in the pay of the Iranians. They never offered toe to toe battle, using the traditional Iranian way of way, especially using Improvised Explosive Devices. Both are being used in Syria, fighting the war for Assad and their Iranian puppet masters.

Armament

The weaponry of the Al Sistani factions are basic, mostly small arms and crew served weapons, but the Iranian factions have heavy weapons including some American Abrams tanks and artillery, but for the most part they fight with small arms, mines, mortars and other offset weapons.

The Iranian factions are armed based on the Iranian way of war which basically depends on intimidation, propaganda, deceit, and deception not conventional warfare. They are well trained in the light weapons and have a degree of discipline better than that of the Al Sistani faction. However with so many many groups under the Iranian umbrella, there are many divisions based on leader personalities and cash distribution by the Iranians.

Why should we worry about the PMU and consequently Iraq?

Iran has had irredentist aims ever since the Islamists overturned the rule of the Shah in 1978, initially based on the Iranian Shi’a aggressive version of Islam but as the fervor of the revolution waned , the Iranian regime resorted to more radical and militant approach to widen their control of neighboring states. Using their Al Quds unit to militarily support the Assad’ s regime in Syria, training the Lebanese Hezbollah in the Bekaa’ Valley in Lebanon, and supporting the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip they have forged a so called “Shi’a arc” across the Levant. However their appetite for greater world power status is not confined to the Levant. They have pushed their tentacles into North Africa, and South America, creating a stronghold in a region known as the tri state region. Iraq is the key to these moves. An adversarial Iraq would derail their grandiose plans and greatly curtail their activities beyond the Middle East. The Strength of the PMU is essential to the continued expansionist aims of Iran

Is it Possible to dismantle the PMU?

The January missile strike that killed Abu Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani gravely damaged the PMU. AS mentioned earlier, Soleimani had obtained mythical levels of belief in his abilities and accomplishments. Abu Muhandis was an effective leader of the fractious Iranian dominated wing of the PMU. The PMU unity often Hangs on a thread as the power-hungry leaders of the many various groups all vie against one another for more power and money. The replacements for Muhandis , and especially Soleimani are not in the same league with their predecessors and they are not up to the job they have been handed.

The New Iraqi PM Mustafa Khadhimi is young, energetic, and as the former chief of Iraqi intelligence he has the “files’ on everyone and that gives him a powerful tool to use against enemies. He is known as being pro-American…. at least not hostile, is not beholden to the Iranian bloc and is more cosmopolitan than previous prime Ministers

Iraq has been severely affected especially by the oil glut brought about by the corona virus pandemic but Iran more so which has had to scale down some of their foreign activities as well as navigate through a period of unrest in Iran itself. The average Iranian family is unable to meet basic needs with the salaries they receive and there is a great deal of frustration within the Iranian populace.

The situation as above would indicate that the process to dismantle the PMU or at least disarm the more violent groups should begin soon and would actually have some measure of success.

Shi’a militia in Iraq

Cultural Problem

One of the main problems in integrating the militias are the cultural issues involved, the same cultural factors which produce a better Arab unconventional fighter than a conventional one . For the Arab militiaman these factors are also why moving to a conventional unit from a militia is not a happy one.

Briefly the factors are.:

1.Militias methods of fighting are  more in consonance with the  Qu’ranic way of War.

2.The importance of bloodlines, i.e., in a militia unit you are far more likely to be serving with kin or tribal members.

3.The leadership are your tribal neighborhood men who rose by  virtue of personal characteristics vs. the often political appointed officer you do not know.

4.As member of a militia you are far more likely to be recognized for your individual feats of arms than slugging it out as an infantrymen in a conventional unit. The traditional Arab love of self promotion and combat glory will be smothered by the chain of command over you.

4. The individualism of the Bedouin Arab  is much inhibited by the discipline of a conventional unit. Drills and formations are unlikely to be welcomed by the former militiamen. Part of this can be observed in the uniforms. As a militiaman your uniform can accessorized with a multitude of berets, scarves, and other appurtenances.  You can usually choose your own weapon and what equipment to carry. Not so as an ordinary  soldier. Your ability to present a more heroic figure to the  women is thus another factor.

5.Finally as a militiaman you are usually licensed to plunder and  assuage  blood  lust against sectarian or political enemies. You are somewhat more constrained in a conventional unit.

abdul Aziz Ibn Saud

 The Saudi Case Study

Saudi Arabia was established by war and conquest, engineered by a most unique and singular individual, the  George Washington of Arabia, Abdul Aziz  Ibn al Saud. An extraordinarily ambitious man, he is described by St John Philby in these terms. “All through his life he had subjected himself to an austere regime to keep himself in perpetual training for the rough side of life. He told me that normally he  still didn’t normally drink water as much as once in six months. Coffee, and camel’s milk providing the necessary liquid his body needed. ” Saud could be magnanimous or extremely brutal, as the circumstances required, but primarily he relied upon the Arab method of overcoming his enemies, excellence of speech,  detailed knowledge of his rivals, especially their weaknesses and enemies, and a depth of military acumen unknown to the tribes.

The Ikhwan

The Ikwan were called soldier saints by some…in a semi humorous vein..as they were in many ways close to the ISIS of today their way of war and fanaticism. However the Ikkwan were truly motivated by an extreme version of Islam as opposed to the mercenary Baa’th party origins of the ISIS. They were former Bedouin tribes people settled by Ibn Saud to make his rule easier to maintain. In these villages the tribes were mixed in an effort to break down tribal loyalties.

Ibn Saud used them to conquer the Najran, Asir, the Hejaz, and his enemies in the the Nejd. They were constantly at war as the tribes of Saudi were not amenable to rule by anyone. Ibn Saud supplied them with better weapons and better leadership. From 1912 to 1930 that were almost always at war as revolts continually broke out in various parts of Saudi Arabia.

As St. John Philby wrote, no sooner had the Wahhabis ( Ikhwan) done what was required of them war, than they were packed off home to brood on on the iniquities of the world at large, and to wait their next summons to do such work as God might require of them. So around 1929, the Ikhwan began to be put off by the King’s hobnobbing with British officials, , using automobiles, using the telephone, and various other ungodly devices, and especially denying them permission to ride into Iraq and slaughter the Shi’a for whom they had special hatred.

Also the Ikhwan were tired of fighting Ibn Saud’s wars and getting very little in return, especially in terms of their version of an Islamic life., and forced do the fighting for the Kingdom. So in the spring of 1929 they went to war against the King. Of course the king was prepared.  While the Ikhwan were off fighting the wars, the King was building a more modern force of his own, equipped with motor vehicles, machine guns, and artillery. At the battle of Sabila, the Ikhwan were crushed. A couple of years later the remnants of the Ikhwan again confronted the King and were totally eliminated as an enemy force.

Prior to the outbreak of war, the King had assembled all the notables of the Kingdom, clergy, sheikhs, amirs, officials in an attempt to meet the mounting criticism of his regime head on. The results were chronicled in HC Armstrong’s book, the Lord of Arabia. Many of the assembled were  jealous of his power, and influence, his dealings with foreigners, his view of modern devises such as the telephone, telegraph, and the motor car.  “He greeted them as his subjects and as his brothers., he played shrewdly on their pride and religious enthusiasm. He treated then as a massed parliament of his people with the right to criticize him. He placed himself  at their hands and asked for their opinions and their decisions. As long as they were able to argue with him they would afterwards obey him without hesitation.”

Ibn Saud continued “I have heard that some of you Have grievances against me and my viceroys and amirs….I wish to know these grievances so that I may discharge my duty toward you and stand absolved in the sight of God.” He said he would yield his authority of his own free will should the assembled desire it.

The discussion went on many days,  day after day Ibn Saud answered questions, always without rancor  nor the bombastic speeches so characteristic of Arab rulers.

Many feasts were arranged. The king entertained lavishly, and gave many gifts to all his guests. There were one to one talks, and Ulama were called in to answer thorny religious questions. “Every spare moment he spent in receiving the representatives, either singly or in groups, talking with, making friends with them.”

The vast majority were satisfied with his leadership, and those who challenged him were destroyed.

Conclusion

The above is the optimal method of dealing with Militias. Destroy them. The Iraqi prime Minister is unable to do this now so he has chosen the Arab method of honor but contain and gradually undermine their power and influence. He has sent the militias off to fight the remnants of the ISIS, and offered friendship to the PMU in going to their headquarters, observed their customs, honored their achievements, but reminded them of their responsibilities. His speech was more notable for what he did not say than what he did say, e.g., fighting the ISIS is the priority not the US forces.

Most of the PMU elements will fall in line eventually, understanding which side their bread is buttered on, but there are certain  groups so deeply wedded to Iran that cannot  or will not do so. These Khadhimi must play with, sympathize with  and with time, fashion a security force disciplined enough to destroy their power.

Recommendations

The army must once again become the revered institution (rightly or wrongly) it was once viewed by the people. It must recover from the disaster and humiliation of Mosul in 2014. This can be done both materially and cosmetically. The training must be intensified. and most of all a more professional officer corps created along with a noncommissioned officer corps. Cosmetically there should frequent displays of the military at public demonstrations, eg., firepower displays, parades, having certain units entertain young people. Create the fact that the Popular militias are no longer needed. Probably most important, a situations must be created where the army can score real victories over the ISIS, to restore the soldier’s morale in their profession.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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