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Iraq: How the Sectarian PMF Law Could be Turned Around

On November 27, Iraq’s Parliament passed a controversial legislation that recognizes the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which is essentially a Shia militia, as a “government force empowered to deter security and terror threats facing the country”.

It was the same PMF which was accused by all major international human rights organizations, without one exception, and several Western governments, of committing “gross human rights violations against Iraq’s Sunni civilians” as HRW mentioned in one of several reports covering the Iranian backed PMF activities.

Due to the active role of the PMF in fighting ISIL in Iraq, additional pressures were placed on relatively moderate Shia politicians in Baghdad, including PM Haider Al Abadi, to pass the legislation which was opposed by most Sunni politicians.

“The majority does not have the right to determine the fate of everyone else. There should be genuine political inclusion. This law must be revised”, Osama Al Nujaifi, one of Iraq’s three vice presidents and a senior Sunni politician, told reporters after the vote, which was boycotted by many Sunni lawmakers.

Abadi succeeded in convincing the PMF not to participate in the battle to free Mosul from ISIL, and to settle with controlling some areas south and west of the city. But the deal entailed an early commitment from the PM to pass the controversial legislation. It was only in that case that the Iranian backed militia would regrain from complicating the fight for Mosul and placing it with a sectarian conflict, not as a war against terrorism.

The PMF has 140,000 men of whom over 100,000 are under arms. Though made of several groups, it is looked at by Iran as the Iraqi equivalent of the Lebanese Hezbollah. The main bond between its fighters is sectarian in essence. Flags and slogans raised during the march of PMF units to Nineveh were Shia religious symbols and rarely national in nature.

The complaint of the Sunni minority is summarized by Iyad Al Samerai. The General Secretary of the Islamic Party of Iraq. “We see that the PMF was created due to a certain moment in which ISIL emerged. As ISIL is now disappearing-that is to say that the moment is passing, we believe that the PMF should also disband and leave the function of protecting our country only to our national army and security forces”, Samerai said.

“When the US forces built the Sunni tribal Sahwa forces which fought Al Qaeda until its defeat, we demanded the Sahwas be turned into a local force in Sunni regions or to be integrated in the armed forces. Both demands were rejected by the government of Nouri Al Maliki in Baghdad. Today, the PMF played a similar role to that of the Sahwa groups. However, it received a different response from Baghdad. Is not that double measures?”, he added.

There is no question that the legalization of the PMF is a further step on tightening Iran’s grip around Iraq. But what should be debated in Baghdad, in order to avoid future eruption of terrorism and radicalism among Iraqi Sunnis, is to take another look at the case of the Sunni tribal units which also participated in the fight to free Mosul of ISIL.

There is a wing of the PMF, however marginalized and deprived of any command positions, made of Sunni tribes’ fighters. According to Haider Al Mawla, a Parliamentarian member of the block of Nouri Al Maliki, hardly a friend of Sunnis, there are 36 groups of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh Sunnis fighting under the flag of the PMF. Al Mawla said that those fighters, however, have not received any salaries from the PMF.

It may be worth a while to look at the PMF as a double-winged force, one focusing on the Shia areas, while the other is concerned with the security of the Sunni regions. Each wing will be constituted by local fighters who are more able to gather precise information and conduct pre-emptive strikes to prevent the rise of terrorism. The fact that Sunni units of the PMF act in Sunni regions may help reduce future sectarian frictions, a serious source of threats to the unity of Iraq.

As the PMF legislation has already been approved by the Parliament, seeking a unifying interpretation of the law may be proper and timely. If the PMF is to be considered as a National Guard with regional security responsibilities, it is only natural to build it in each region by the population of the region.

While seeking this interpretation of the new law, all should be aware that the issue here is not forming a convincing argument that Sunni Parliamentarians offer to the rest of legislators. The bottom line is that pro-Iran forces in Baghdad understand very well what they do and why they do it. Their objective is to spread their control over the Sunni regions simply because Iran wants to control that region.

Yet, it is an error to assume that all Shia politicians are necessarily pro-Iran. The “Iran-First” camp is limited in Maliki and some of his boys. Many Iraqi Shia politicians have an “Iraq-First” stand. Such a stand does not automatically entail a hostile policy towards Iran.

It is important to understand that the picture is not painted with one single color. A patriotic Sunni hand should be extended to patriotic Shia politicians in order to start a new page in Iraq after ISIL. The main objective in the future should be to avoid the rebirth of terrorism. In order to achieve this goal, patriot Iraqi Shias should stand against any sectarian oppression to Iraq’s Sunnis. Sunnis should commit to one unified Iraq, sovereign, independent, and above all free of terrorism.

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