Identity Conflict inside PMF, Najaf Unit VS Qom Unit

Firas Elias

Emergence of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)was based on the fatwa of the Shiite cleric, Sayyid Ali al-Sistani in June 2014 to fight Daesh (ISIS-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), and this fatwa was known as (Righteous Jihad Fatwa). According to this fatwa, new factions were formed along with other previously comprised factionsto form in its entirety what is known today as Popular Mobilization Forces. After that, Iraqi Peoples’ Assembly issued Law No.40 of 2016 dubbed as Law of Popular Mobilization Forces in order to give an institutional and organizational attribute to this entity.

The PMF is consisted of several heterogeneous and regular armed factions, distributed among several national and sectarian loyalties and affiliations. Today, it consists of 164,000 fighters (110,000 Shiites – 45,000 Sunnis – 9,000 minorities), and they are distributed among several factions, 67 Shiite factions (44 of them imitate the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 17 imitate the Shiite reference Ali al-Sistani), 43 Sunni factions and nine factions of minorities.

The pro- Iran faction imitating Khamenei constitutes of about 70 thousand fighters, compared to 40 thousand fighters belonging to the pro-Sistani shrines forces, including the Peace Brigades that follow Muqtada Assadr.

Deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Authority (PMA), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, before his death, played a major role in reshaping relations within the PMF in a more central way, and in a manner that marginalized effectiveness of other main factions within the entity, specifically the mobilization of the Shrines group that consider itself the legitimate pillar on which PMF is based, especially since it is affiliated with the Shiite reference Al-Sistani, who issued the fatwa (Righteous Jihad Fatwa). In this context, al- Muhandis’ doctrinal connection, as he imitates Supreme Leader Khamenei, constitutes a major part in establishing the PMF. He considered the PMF an institution whose function transcends the borders of Iraq and a part of the Iranian-led Resistance Axis in the Middle East, unlike the view of the Shrines forces, topped by al-Abbas fighting faction led by Maytham al-Zaidi, who believes that the main function of the PMF is to fight Daesh (ISIS) only, without participating in any other regional obligations.

Al-muhandis resisted any governmental attempts to dismantle the centralization that he made for the pro-Iran factions within the Popular Mobilization Authority, and this is evident through the control of Hezbollah Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Nujaba Movement, and Jund Al-imam at the main joints within the crowd, the most important of which are (Central Security, Intelligence, Financial Department, Ideological Guidance, the Chief of Staff and the special tactical units (missiles and anti-armor). Such centralityhas deepened the dispute a lot within the Popular Mobilization Authority, to the extent that the crowd of shrines announced its disengagement from the Popular Mobilization Authority and transferring it to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in April 2020.

PMF and internal disputes.

The great transformations that the Popular Mobilization Forces underwent at the beginning of this year led to an escalation of internal disputes, due to the absence of the rhythm controls that were in place during the period of al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani, and Iran played a major role in deepening these disputes, while these circumstances in turn contributed to the entry of the PMF into a new stage. The most prominent manifestations of this stage were represented by the absence of centrality that was embodied in the personality of al- Muhandis , and the escalation of the dispute between the leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces, (the loyal factions led by Abu Fadak al-Muhammadawi, and the mobilization of shrines led by Maytham al-Zaidi), in addition to the escalation of US strikes on the sites of the state factions whether internally or externally. Among the most powerful strikes were those directed at Amerli camps and the Imam Ali base on the borders with Syria.

These above-mentioned challenges are associated with other political challenges, the most important of which are the repeated calls by the Najaf Unitfor the necessity of implementing laws and divisional orders related to the restructuring of the PMF to make it a more balanced and professional institution. Actually, these calls were refused by the pro-Iran forces  of the PMF who were  in  way to shift from the centrality of the individual to the centrality of the pro-Iran factions, namely Kataib Hezbollah alongside other factions, which today control most of the main joints within the authority n addition to its military and field weight, despite the lack of military support shall be received from the Iraqi government, compared to the Counter-terrorism Departmentor the Iraqi army. However,it could develop its own self-financing sources, so that it is not clear until now that it has been affected by the US imposed sanctions.

These challenges, as a whole, pushed the loyal factions to adopt the policy of rebellion on government decisions and evento not adhere to the calm policies that the Iraqi government called for with the US presence in Iraq, until a consensus was reached on this presence through strategic dialogue with the United States. These factions worked to form Katyusha cells, which targeted the US forces at the bases of Taji and Balad, as well as continuous attacks on the US embassy in the Green Zone. The most prominent of these factions is the League of Revolutionaries, which adopted most of these attacks.

Shrines unit’s conference and disengagement from the PMF.

Six years after its formation, the PMF is witnessing an unusual activity that began on the first of December, by holding a conference outside the framework of the Popular Mobilization Authority, under discrepancy about its tokens and the darkening of the political and security situation in Iraq. The conference was held under the slogan “The PMF shrines Unit incubating the fatwa and state builders”. The first session of the conference revolved around the administrative and financial departments of the Popular Mobilization brigades, to which the Shrines factions belong, and the content of the first session may reflect the“suffering “of the PMF shrines unit from the scarcity of financial support, armament, equipment and the obscurity of the role of its fighters in the war against Daesh ( ISIS) in contrary to the pro-Iran factions, which is called by someas “the loyalist mobilization.”

On December 3, 2020, the closing statement of the first conference of the shrinesunits was announced in eight points included demands, recommendations, and directives to the fighters of the brigades affiliated, namely (Ali Al-Akbar Brigades, Al-Abbas Combat Unit, Hashd Al-Marjaiya, Imam Ali Unit). The conference leasers stressed on the necessity of preserving the points of victory over ISIS, adherence to the law and the constitution, asking Parliament and the government to pay attention to the issue of administrative stability for the PMF affiliates and urging the implementation of the instructions related to freedom of fighters to choose the body where they get their salaries without forcing them to any party.

Position of the PMF in the Iraqi  political system

Today, the PMF acts as a parallel state. It runs a parallel judicial system, secret prisons, an illegal parallel economy and a parallel war effort that undermines the unity of command across the Iraqi military establishment. It is a situation that pointed to the nature of the complexity produced by the presence of such entity in the Iraqi security scene, which made Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhiemi, think carefully about how to normalize the status of the PMF.

Al-Kadhimi’s desire to redefine the PMF and its role came through several initiatives, first of which was announced during his visit to the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Authority on June 16, 2020, when he confirmed that the Popular Mobilization Forces are the mobilization of the Shiite reference Sistani, and that Law No. 40 of 2016 will be the basis for any future governmental interaction with the status of the PMF, a trend that may change its status if it is done, as it will reduce the power of the pro-Iran factions over the PMF, which strongly reject the application of this law.

The pro-Iran factions view the efforts to normalize the PMF as part of a US strategy directed against Iran. Thus, they demanded more than once to be a part of those who lead any reform process that affects the PMF, urgingany process to be from within and rejecting any reform efforts that come from outside. Moreover, these factions consider that any reform process should not affect the role and tasks of the PMF, which makes the issue of normalizing the these forces a matter subject to internal Iraqi changes and regional and international obligations.

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