Military operations led by Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces in northern Iraq have ended but a new chapter in the history of the umbrella group of militias begins.
The operations, deemed a “success” by Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) media, were said to have driven out Islamic State (ISIS) operatives along Iraqi-Syrian border.
As another victory was claimed, the existing mandate of the PMF could extend beyond the battle and political field.
Code-named Will of Victory, the operations began in mid-July and swept through Baghdad, Diyala, Anbar and Saladin provinces. Forces were said to have searched 50 villages — the equivalent to 300,000 sq.km — dismantling explosives and chasing away terrorists.
Areas most under PMF scrutiny included Anbar province and Mosul city. PMF news releases stated that orchards and farms were also at the top of their hit list, claiming that “thick vegetation and flora” were used for ISIS ambushes.
The Security Media Cell said in a statement the week of July 15 that “the first phase was successful” and that the second aims at “bolstering security and stability.”
Observers interpreted the second phase of Will of Victory as a power grab. Reporting of the battle on the umbrella group’s website suggests that its forces, having secured a monopoly of violence, are looking to having a primary role in construction of service delivery.
Security and its restoration are themes that feature heavily across PMF publicised rhetoric.
In Tarmiyah, 45km north of Baghdad and considered an “ISIS haven” by PMF commanders, Iran-backed militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was warmly greeted by tribal figureheads and other dignitaries. This is despite Tarmiyah’s history of violence that militias have used to repress residents and Sunni clergy.
“We [the PMF] were approached and asked to monitor security, alongside official security forces, Baghdad operations command, federal police forces, Joint Operations Command and Emergency Reaction Division,” Muhandis told Tarmiyah’s tribesmen.
Major-General Yahya Rasool, of Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, confirmed that a coalition of security actors were engaged in operations to uproot secret terror cells and ISIS remnants along the Iraqi-Syrian border, the Anadolu Agency reported.
“As far as we’ve seen, the situation is fine and the area is safe,” Muhandis said the week of July 15, adding that the next priority for the PMF was “to support local families and to restore stability to their lives” in Tikrit and Mosul.
Reporting of the developments was confined to local media because mainstream media circles around the meaning behind Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s PMF integration decree.
It was another decree in a long line of orders aimed at restructuring the loose coalition of militia forces, many of which receive significant backing from Iran. The decree came a day after the beginning of Will of Victory but it is unclear how the step differs from moves under former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to induct the PMF into Iraq’s official security forces.
Militia forces, which the state argues act under its direction, have used their “anti-ISIS” mandate to control important networks and strategic roads and refineries. In absence of public finances for provinces, what is likely to take place is renewed effort to grab control.
Al Hadath TV reported that Abdul-Mahdi ordered an end to all PMF activities, including checkpoints, and the closure of offices belonging to separate elements of the militias, known locally as Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.
Abdul-Mahdi previously assured that individual names of units would fizzle out, instead adopting brigade and battalion numbers, Renad Mansour wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
While some celebrated Abdul-Mahdi’s move, others dismissed it as political deja vu. The group was placed under state payroll in November 2017.
“Hold your excitement about this move,” Middle East analyst Joe Macaron wrote on Twitter, adding that “under US pressure and ahead of his [Abdul-Mahdi’s] Washington visit, he issued this decree that either cannot be implemented.”
The operations coincide with new US sanctions on Iraqi militia commanders Rayan al-Kildani and Waad Qadu and former provincial governors Nawfal Hammadi al Sultan and Ahmad al Jabouri, known also as Abu Mazen. All four stand accused of corruption and human rights violations.
Decrees, though plentiful, have not clipped the wings of rising militiamen or their sectarian agenda. With a green light from other official security actors, the PMF is not only occupying the top of Iraq’s military food chain, its reach is expanding into sectors traditionally managed by Iraq’s provincial councils.
Its next metamorphosis may project PMF power further if it claims responsibility for the construction portfolio and service delivery in north-western Iraq.
Nazli Tarzi is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.