Iraq’s militias enter the army

A new law brings the Shia militias under formal command. But questions remain

The formal role accorded to Iraq's Shia militia's raises important questions about how prime minister Haider Al Abadi will go about reconciliation after Mosul is retaken. Anmar Khalil / AP Photo
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The formal role given to Iraq’s Shia militias this week by the Iraqi parliament has been overshadowed by the continued assault on Mosul. But the new role raises important questions about how prime minister Haider Al Abadi will go about reconciliation after Mosul is retaken.

Known as the Hashed Al Shaabi or the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the group is a coalition of various Shia militias that have emerged as an important fighting force against ISIL. So vital have they been that, for a couple of years, the Iraqi government has paid their salaries. Now they have been formally incorporated into the army. But the exact role that the PMF will play is unclear.

On the one hand, bringing the PMF into a formal command structure is a positive development. Having sectarian militias with strong ties to Iran roaming Iraq has caused severe tensions between communities.

But there are some unanswered questions. First will be the lines of control. As prime minister, Mr Al Abadi is commander in chief of the Iraqi army. But some reports have suggested the PMF would be a separate part within the army. Would they then report to the chief of staff of the military, or to Mr Al Abadi directly? The distinction matters because if they bypassed the usual command structure, it could give Mr Al Abadi a fighting force loyal to him personally.

A second question is what will happen to the fighters of the PMF. Will it be disbanded and its personnel reassigned across the army, or would it be kept intact? Iraqi Sunnis, who have suffered revenge killings at the hands of the PMF, will be extremely wary of this fighting force if it remains intact. There would also be questions about loyalty. The PMF draws support from Iran and some of the groups in the PMF have ideological ties to the country. The parliamentary bill called on these groups to give up political affiliations, but how that will be enforced is unclear.

All of which explains the nervousness of Iraq’s Sunnis. Mr Al Abadi must explain how this new arrangement will work. Iraq’s Sunnis already feel sidelined politically. Having a sectarian force inside the Iraqi army will not help reconciliation.