The Iraq Report: Shia militias begin purges of anti-Iran rivals

The Iraq Report: Shia militias begin purges of anti-Iran rivals
7 min read
22 February, 2019
This week's round-up of under-reported news from Iraq focuses on the ruthless efforts of powerful factions within the PMF to consolidate power.
The PMF played a major role in fighting IS in Iraq [Archive photo: AFP 2017]
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
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Divisions among Iraqi Shia militant factions have been surfacing more frequently in recent weeks as they compete with each other over access to the spoils of victory following the "defeat" of the Islamic State group in December 2017.

While some of this competition is over resources, other actions - including assassinations - have taken place against elements deemed to be "disloyal" to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leading to fears of "purges".

These purges appear to be designed to unify the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which came into existence in 2014 ostensibly to fight IS, bringing together dozens of Shia Islamist militant groups. However, with the diminishing of IS as an existential threat to their power, and with concerns raised about another decline of the conventional armed forces, the PMF has sought to close ranks and become the dominant force in Iraqi affairs - all while being under the direction of Iran.

Pro-Iran militants target former allies

Earlier this month, the PMF announced it had arrested a senior Shia militant, Aws al-Khafaji, after raiding his home, and closed down four offices belonging to his militia, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades.

An official PMF statement referred to non-specific "violations" as the reason behind Khafaji's detention, and announced some of his men who opposed the closures were also arrested.

However, Khafaji's arrest appears to be linked to an interview he gave to local media in which he suggested Iraqis should not only resist Turkish and American interference, but also Iran's meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Khafaji's veiled criticism of Iran is unusual, as he and his militia were both beneficiaries of Iranian military and financial support. Khafaji is well-known for his anti-Sunni sectarianism and had previously threatened the entire population of Fallujah, a city the UN confirmed saw numerous war crimes during its recapture.

The militant leader's stance could be as a result of a loss of resources from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are closely connected to the leadership of the PMF, as well as increasing discord between the influential Shia seminaries in Iraq's Najaf and Iran's Qom.

There are also suggestions that Khafaji could have been angered by suspected PMF assassins killing his cousin after Khafaji released a video criticising the pro-Iran militias for the murder.

Khafaji's cousin was a well-known secular Shia writer, Alaa Mashzoub, who was shot 13 times in the abdomen earlier this month. Mashzoub had always been heavily critical of Iranian interference. Ironically, Mashzoub was also renowned for criticising Shia militias like the one his cousin commanded, accusing them of gangsterism and of exploiting the Iraqi people.

Others have also been arrested after being accused of anti-Iran sentiments, including Shia Arab folk poet Salah al-Harbawi who was arrested for declaring, among other lines of publicly recited poetry: "O Saddam [Hussein] I hate you, but I love you passionately."

Analysts have suggested that cases such as the arrest of Khafaji is likely to be demonstrative of an internal power struggle within the PMF as more dominant commanders purge weaker leaders. These weaker militia leaders can be moved out of the way and their militias either dismantled or subsumed by the more powerful PMF factions to slowly homogenise the force and unify its broader political agenda as represented by the Fateh, or Conquest, electoral bloc.

It is also ironically reminiscent of what former leader Saddam Hussein did upon assuming power in 1979.

Saddam notoriously called an extraordinary meeting of the Baath Party in Baghdad and gathered many of his internal rivals in one room where he declared them "disloyal" and swiftly had them arrested and shot.

Members of Iraq's Rapid Response unit attend the funeral of PMF leader Dagher Mussawi in Basra on February 17 [AFP]

As army declines, PMF consolidates power

The PMF's ambitions are perhaps best exemplified by their nominal leader, National Security Adviser Falih al-Fayyadh. Fayyadh, who serves as the chair of the PMF committee, has been strongly suggested as a candidate for the vacant interior ministry, but the appointment is currently being blocked by election winners Sairoun, led by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

While the post of interior minister has been traditionally held by a member of the Badr Organisation, Fayyadh - as a long-time member of the powerful Shia Islamist Dawa Party - has received the support and blessings of Badr leader and Conquest List leader Hadi al-Amiri.

Recently, however, the Conquest List and the Sadrists have announced they are coming to an agreement regarding the powerful position, with suggestions that Fayyadh may be axed as a candidate to appease Sadr.

Nevertheless, with the purging of more unruly leaders within the PMF, and the increasing coordination between the military wing led by Fayyadh and characters like Abu Mahdi al-Muhendis and Qais al-Khazali - a decidedly pro-Iran triumvirate - and the political wing represented by the Conquest List, it is clear the PMF has greater ambitions.

These ambitions could include becoming the Iraqi equivalent of the Iranian IRGC, which strongly supports the PMF. Like the IRGC, the PMF already enjoys a share of the national budget, fields political candidates, and has numerous smaller militias at its disposal.

These ambitions come at the cost of Iraqi institutions that have traditionally enjoyed support among the population, such as the national army.

While the PMF was legalised as an entity and included within the chain of command of the Iraqi armed forces, it often conducts operations without the consent of the defence ministry or the prime minister's office - including extraterritorial operations in neighbouring Syria under the direction of the IRGC.

Meanwhile, US charges d'affaires Joey Hood has come under attack by Khazali after suggesting that the Iraqi army was in decline and incapable of defending the country.

Khazali said that Hood's comments were an "insult" to the Iraqi armed forces, leading to analysts again questioning why these militias simply come under the army's command.

While Hood may have been criticised for his comments, Iraqi soldiers have again come under scrutiny for their lack of commitment and military discipline. Reports have indicated that soldiers have become addicted to playing popular videogame PUBG (Player Unknown's Battleground) and "neglecting duties in the field".

This lack of discipline is reminiscent of the quality of Iraqi forces who were put to flight by IS fighters across Iraq in 2014. Without investment in soldiers and officers to command and inspire their men, the PMF may simply dominate the army as the IRGC has done in Iran.

Shia militias block Sunni IDPs returning home

Once again, the spectre of the war against IS rears its head as internally displaced Iraqis - largely from the Sunni Arab demographic - are continued to be denied their right to return home by Shia militias commanded by the PMF.

IDPs number more than a million people, despite the officially declared "defeat" of IS in December 2017 by then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Many have been denied access to their homes in Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and Jurf al-Sakhr, a small Sunni Arab town that has been turned into a military outpost for the Shia militants.

The New Arab
’s Arabic-language service reported that IDPs originally hailing from the important oil refining city of Baiji are also being barred from returning to their homes by PMF militants who have set up shop in the industrial city north of Baghdad. Thousands of families have been affected.

Baiji's IDPs were forced out five years ago after fighting between IS militants on one side and the national army, PMF and US-led forces on the other, set their city ablaze. It has been three years since Baiji was declared liberated, yet thousands of families are still in IDP camps suffering horrendous living conditions.

Residents have reported PMF fighters using their houses as storage dumps, accommodation, and ammunition depots. The PMF has said that it fears that their withdrawal and allowing residents to return to their homes may allow IS to move back in with them.

Such a discriminatory approach shows that the PMF - now an official formation in the Iraqi armed forces - believes that all Sunni Arabs are an inherent security risk. By refusing to allow them to return to their lives before IS came, the PMF and the Iraqi government are allowing IS a major propaganda victory - they can easily point to government and militia sectarianism exactly as they did in 2013 before their rise.

However, there is little political will in Baghdad to ensure IDPs like those from Baiji are returned home, as they perceive Sunni Arabs to form a miniscule proportion of their predominantly Shia voter base.

Further, many Shia Islamist politicians have been known to whip up hatred against Sunnis and demonise them in order to distract from chronic issues such as a failing health service, power shortages, a crumbling economy and a dwindling of national sovereignty to a whole host of regional and international powers.

IS 2.0 could very well rise from within these IDP camps, which are ripe for radicalisation with their inhabitants disenfranchised for so long.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
Read the full series here or sign up to our mailing list on our front page
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