Security

Wary of Iran's influence, Sistani supports integrating PMF into security forces

By Fares al-Omran

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The four Najaf-linked factions within the PMF held their first co-ordination conference in early December to reaffirm their commitment to the state and reject militias loyal to Iran. [Al-Kafeel Global Network]

As Iraq's economy gets back on its feet and security forces tighten the noose on "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) remnants in the country, calls are mounting to integrate the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the military.

Iraqi security forces should be the only official authority responsible for defending the country, Iraq's religious authorities and experts say.

The three-year war on ISIS provided an opportunity for the emergence of militias and factions, many of which owe their allegiance to Iran.

In June 2014, after ISIS took over Iraqi cities, most notably Mosul, supreme Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa on collective-duty jihad against the terrorist group.

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Officials and military commanders attended the December conference held at al-Abbas shrine in Karbala by the four Najaf-linked factions of the PMF. [Al-Kafeel Global Network]

The fatwa -- known as "Al-Jihad al-Kafai" -- did not call for the formation of armed groups but rather urged Iraqis to volunteer in the ranks of the armed forces.

Still, many of the factions that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had previously established and supported with money and weapons in Iraq seized the opportunity to emerge and come out in the open.

Once ISIS was expelled from the territories it had captured, those Iran-linked militias -- operating as part of the PMF -- began to organise their ranks, expand their influence and subsequently became a threat which some analysts consider "no less dangerous than ISIS".

These militias include Kataib Hizbullah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba, the Badr Organisation and Sayyed al-Shuhada Brigades, among others. They follow the orders of al-Wali al-Faqih, in reference to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

Integration into security forces

"The fatwa was clear," said Iraqi political analyst Ahmed Shawki.

In it, al-Sistani urged Iraqi youth to volunteer with security forces "but did not grant Sharia-based permission for the establishment of factions that owe their loyalty to foreign actors, act as rivals to the state and violate the law", Shawki said.

Now that victory over ISIS has been achieved and Iraqi forces are well trained and able to stamp out the group's remnants on their own, Iraq's supreme Shia authority aims to put things back on their normal track, Shawki said.

It has on more than one occasion called for the integration of fighters who volunteered to fight ISIS into the ranks of security forces, he added.

There was speculation in March, following the announcement of four Najaf-aligned factions of their withdrawal from the PMF and their integration into the Iraqi army, that al-Sistani would end the fatwa mandating al-jihad al-kafai, but that has not materialised as of yet.

Still, calls for the integration of PMF fighters into the military are an explicit declaration of an end to the need for mobilisation and that the fatwa achieved the goals for which it was issued, Shawki said.

Liwa Ansar al-Marja'iyya, Liwa Ali al-Akbar, al-Abbas Combat Division and Imam Ali Combat Division announced last March 18 their decision to disband from the PMF.

In their first co-ordination conference in December, the four factions sought to contain and isolate militias loyal to Iran. They reiterated their commitment to safeguarding the authority of the state and its institutions; reaffirmed their affiliation with the Iraqi forces; and urged the government to finalise the process of their joining the security forces.

Widespread discontent with militias

A study by security expert Hisham al-Hashemi, released five days before his assassination on July 6 by militants suspected of being linked to Iran-backed groups, shed light on the composition and balance of power in the PMF.

According to the study, titled "Internal dispute within the PMF", the Iran-affiliated militias operating under the PMF umbrella had swelled to 44 factions comprising close to 70,000 "loyalist" Iraqi fighters (in reference to their allegiance to Khamenei).

In contrast, groups affiliated with al-Sistani and other religious authorities number 23 and comprise 40,000 fighters.

"There is a conflict growing by the day" between the two sides over the behaviour of the loyalist factions within the PMF, the study said.

This behaviour is undermining the safety and interests of the Iraqi state in favor of the Iranian regime, it said.

Shawky said Iran-backed militias have now become a heavy burden on Iraq due to the security problems they cause through hostile actions that harm Iraqis.

These militias possess rockets and heavy weapons, he said, and their actions harm Iraq's sovereignty, interests and economy, as well as the region's stability.

They must be "dissolved through courageous national decisions" and their weapons must be confiscated, said Shawky.

Military expert Ayad al-Toufan said the blessing al-Sistani gave to integrating the Najaf-aligned factions into the security forces makes the presence of any armed group with foreign allegiance illegitimate.

He added that al-Sistani supports Iraq's security forces as "the only official authority responsible for protecting Iraqis and defending the country".

Iraqis are hopeful for "an imminent demise of militias, so they can enjoy peace and prosperity and focus on building and developing their country," he said.

Last September, al-Sistani threw his support behind Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi's announcement that parliamentary elections will be held ahead of schedule this year -- on October 10, roughly a year early.

Early elections are "the right and peaceful" path to getting out of the current host of political, economic, security and health problems Iraq faces, he said.

Is Iranian influence good for the Middle East?

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