What's dividing the PMU in Iraq's election?

What's dividing the PMU in Iraq's election?
Comment: Iraq's elections are shedding light on the the deep rift within the PMU, and the contested influence of Iran in the organisation's future, writes Mona Alami.
5 min read
04 May, 2018
The 329-member Council of Representatives will in turn elect the Iraqi president and PM [AFP]
With less than two weeks before the next Iraqi elections, prominent members of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU, or Hashed Shaabi) forming part of the Fateh (Conquest) coalition say they are gearing up for broad sweep of seats in the next parliament.

Yet, the participation of the PMU under the Fateh banner has triggered a debate within the PMU factions, with indirect warning and criticism voiced respectively by Iraq's top Shia cleric Sayed Ali Sistani, and prominent Shia figure, Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for 12 May have seen a fresh dynamic develop among Shia populations. The elections witnessed the participation of symbolic figures from the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units, building on the organisation's victory against the so-called Islamic State (IS) last December. The Fateh coalition banner includes Sheikh Kais Khazali, Sheikh Akram Kaabi and Ahmad Assadi, among many others.  

"We believe we will achieve a comfortable majority of the parliamentary seats, people are going to repay the PMU for the great sacrifices it has made," said one commander in the Badr organisation, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Baghdad is in the midst of an intense electoral campaign, and Dr Naim Aboudi, the spokesperson for the Assaib Ahl Haq (AAH), which is led by Sheikh Kais Khazali, explains that the elections are attracting a lot of attention because they will set the foundations for a new phase of state-building and reconstruction.

"The 2018 elections are very different from the 2014 or 2010 elections because we are in phase of victory over IS. There is popular trust in the state effort in stabilising security, despite the problems linked to the economic and services sectors.

"There will not be a big difference between large leading coalitions (during the polls), but we believe that we [Fateh] will be competing with the Nasr Coalition (headed by current prime minister Haidar Abadi) for majority seats in parliament," said Dr al-Aboudi.

Pro-Iran factions within the PMU such as the Badr commander underscore that that their primary contender for the prime minister position is Hadi Ameri. "Our first choice is definitely the Mujahid Hadi Ameri", says the Badr commander.  

"The reelection of current Prime minister Haidar Abadi will be only be considered in last resort, and only if it is tied to certain guarantees regarding the PMU future," he adds.

Others in AAH underline that any next prime minister will have to tackle two important issues related to the paramilitaries. "First, the position of fighters should be guaranteed within the new formation, without any decrease to their numbers, amounting to over 120,000 fighters.

"Secondly, military officers in the PMU should keep their military ranks and titles, and no new officers should be brought in from outside the PMU," says Dr Aboudi.  

The debate around the future of the PMU and the participation of some of its leaders has divided the PMU and other major Shia factions which do not share the pro-Iranian factions' vision when it comes to the political role of the PMU.   

In a recent interview published online, the leader of the PMU Saraya Salam faction, Sayed Moqtada Sadr offered "advice" to the Fateh electoral block, stressing that using the name of the PMU to win votes was "disobedience" to the marjaiya (Iraq Shia religious body).

Sadr was responding to a comment by the Secretary-General of AAH, Qais al-Khazali who declared that that Sadr's political coalition, the Sairoun Alliance which includes the Iraq Communist Party, would come in fourth position in the next parliamentary elections.   

The debate around the future of the PMU and the participation of some of its leaders has divided the PMU

Sadr criticised the Fateh leaders' 'propaganda', accusing them of exploiting the name of the PMU and the jihad against IS in order to secure votes, especially given that most of them do not have an "honourable background".  

Besides Sadr, Sayed Sistani has has also held ambiguous positions toward the PMU's nascent political role and its participation in the next elections.  

Read more:  Don't re-elect 'corrupt' MPs, says Iraq's top Shia authority

For Sheikh Mazen Tamimi, a member of the marjaiya PMU which is affiliated to the ministry of defense, members of the paramilitary umbrella should remain above the fray and not participate to elections because of the corruption attached to parliamentarians in Iraq.

In addition, Sayed Sistani has also shared his intention of publishing a road map that would help voters in their choice of an electoral candidate based on the Arabic saying that "a tried MP should not be tried again" meaning that a previously elected MP who proved his inefficiency and corruption a first time should not be elected a second time.

In a Friday sermon, Sistani's spokesperson Abdel Mehdi Karbalai said the marjaiya did not support any electoral contender, and that candidates should not build on people's emotions for electoral gains.

It also highlights the significant rivalry opposing two Shia agendas in Iraq

The intense debate taking place on the sidelines of the Iraqi elections sheds light on the deep rift existing within the PMU organisation, as well among Shia voters.

It also highlights the significant rivalry opposing two Shia agendas in Iraq, with one pro-Iranian and another with an outlook that is more independent of Tehran.

Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese analyst who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center, and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.  

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff