Iraqi militias challenge defence minister over comments against PMF

Juma Anad warned militia groups to step back amid stand-off with army over arrest of commander

Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces control one of the entrances to the Green Zone in Baghdad during a recent show of strength. Reuters
Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces control one of the entrances to the Green Zone in Baghdad during a recent show of strength. Reuters

Iraqi Defence Minister Juma Anad must be “held accountable” for accusing state-sanctioned paramilitaries of igniting violence in the country, politicians linked to the militias said on Monday.

Tensions between the government and the militias rose after the arrest last week of Qassem Musleh, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) head of operations in Anbar province.

He has been accused of terrorism, assassinations and attacks on US troops based in the country.

PMF militias backed by Iran responded with a show of force in and around Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone where government buildings and embassies are located, leading to a standoff with the army.

Mr Anad described the incident as a “security breach” and warned against such actions.

"We are calling on the groups to not repeat what happened.

"It is shameful for a conflict to take place within the security system, but there are parties that seek to cause chaos in the country, and monitor from a distance by pouring fuel that ignites the flames of a civil war," Mr Anad said.

Outgoing defence minister Najah al-Shammari (R) hands over the post to his successor, Iraq's new defence minister Jumaa Anad, during a ceremony at Baghdad’s Republican Palace on May 7, 2020. Handout from Iraqi Prime Minister's Press Office via AFP
Iraqi Defence Minister Juma Anad, left, pictured with his predecessor, Najah Al Shammari, during the handover of office in May 2020. AFP

The minister’s remarks were criticised by members of parliament linked to the PMF.

“Parliament must hold politicians accountable for fuelling and inciting violence between armed forces,” said Mohammed Abdul Karim, a deputy in the Fatah alliance that includes MPs associated with the Iran-backed groups in the PMF.

The alliance is led by Hadi Al Ameri of the Badr Organisation, one of the oldest, largest and most important of the Iraqi Shiite groups that are closely linked to Tehran.

“The fighting between officially recognised armed forces is only of interest to the American occupation forces, which are trying to stay in Iraq under any pretext,” Mr Karim said.

Saad Al Saadi, a member of the political bureau of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, another militia group affiliated with Fatah, accused Mr Anad of siding with the Americans.

"The defence minister is now part of the US project," he said.

Mr Al Saadi said Mr Anad's comment was “an insult to the efforts made by the PMF to counter ISIS".

The PMF was a major force in Iraq's war against the extremist group from 2014 to 2017, supporting Iraqi troops backed by US-led global coalition.

Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki said on Twitter that efforts to draw members of the PMF into a confrontation with the army had not succeeded.

“There are attempts to drag the army and the PMF into clashes but they’ve failed,” he said, adding that both sides have “mixed their blood” in liberating Iraq from ISIS.

Mr Al Maliki warned against those who ignite “sedition”.

During Mr Al Maliki’s eight years in office, Iraq witnessed sectarian violence that contributed to the rise of ISIS.

Washington accused his administration of running a sectarian government that alienated sections of Iraqi society, particularly the Sunni minority, pushing them into the arms of ISIS, and undermined the morale of the army.

Mr Al Maliki left office reluctantly in 2014 after security forces crumbled in the face of a lightning advance by ISIS in northern Iraq.

The PMF was formed after tens of thousands of Iraqis responded a call from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, to take up arms against the extremist group.

The militias were formally inducted into Iraq’s state security in 2018, after the defeat of ISIS, and are supposed to report directly to the prime minister.

However, Iran has had a clear hand in co-ordinating with PMF leaders since then, undermining the Iraqi state.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi promised to rein in the Iran-backed militias that operate outside of the state’s control after he took office last May, but has been unsuccessful so far.

Updated: May 31, 2021 08:21 PM

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