On 22 April 2020, former Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had signed a decision to dissociate the Holy Shrines factions from the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC, al-Hashed al-Shaabi) and link them administratively and operationally to the Commander-in Chief of the Armed Forces, that is the Prime Minister himself. This decision takes the conflict between the pro-Iran so-called “loyalist” factions and the factions associated with the religious authority in Najaf to an important stage that could lead to rifts in the PMC.

This paper sheds light on the background of this decision and its significance and implications for the future of the PMC, especially in view of the approach of the new government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi with respect to confining the possession of weapons to the state.

Substantive disagreements between the Holy Shrines factions and the loyalist factions   

In response to the “Sufficient Jihad” Fatwa [religious edict] launched by the Supreme Shiite Leader Ali al-Sistani to counter the collapse of the military establishment after ISIS overran Sunni provinces in the summer of 2014, the Shiite Holy Shrines formed four armed factions, namely:

1. Al-Abbas Combat Division, 26th Popular Mobilization Brigade, led by Sheikh Maytham al-Zaidi who is a relative of Sayyid Ahmad al-Safi, the Chief Cleric of al-Abbas Holy Shrine and the second most prominent spokesman of the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. The Brigade is comprised of seven thousand fighters (practically two brigades, one of which is armoured), and 40 thousand other operatives, ranging between volunteer fighters and logistic support operatives.

2. Ali al-Akbar Brigade, 11th Popular Mobilization Brigade, of the Imam Husayn Shrine, which has three thousand recorded fighters, and double this number in volunteer reservists. The Brigade had been formed under the command of Qassem Musleh, assistant to Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, Guardian of the Holy Shrine, before he was replaced by the retired staff Major General Ali al-Hamdani, who was later assigned to the post of commander of the Mobilization operations in mid-Euphrates.

3. Imam Ali Combat Division, 2nd Popular Mobilization Brigade, of the Imam Ali Shrine, led by Sheikh Taher al-Khakani and comprised of seven thousand fighters.

4. Ansar al-Marja’iyya Brigade, 44th Popular Mobilization Brigade, led by al-Sistani’s deputy in the Muthanna Governorate Hamid al-Yaseri. Most of the Brigade’s three thousand fighters belong to the tribes of al-Rumaitha District.

During the war years against ISIS, those factions were characterized by the strict implementation of the directives of the religious authority in Najaf in terms of conforming to the authority of the Iraqi government, adherence to the contexts of military action under the supervision of the regular armed forces, and respect for the laws of war and human rights in dealing with the Sunni population. This transformed them into a peculiar component within the general image of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that were dominated by the pro-Iran Shiite militias, which are doctrinally and politically associated with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and which ran the PMF according to the Iranian regime’s expansionist agenda in the region.

This variation between the Holy Shrines factions and the loyalist factions clearly affected the way the former deputy chairman of the PMC Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the actual commander of the PMC, treated the Holy Shrines factions that suffered from lack of financial support, armament and equipment, in addition to the blackout with respect to the role of their fighters in the war and neglect of providing care to the injured and families of those who got killed among their ranks. While they managed to show resilience under those pressures thanks to the support of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who directed the Ministry of Defence to supply them with their needs of weapons, equipment and other logistical supplies, discrimination against them did not come to an end even after the endorsement of the Popular Mobilization Act in November 2016 which assigned them nearly 20 thousand fighters divided into four brigades (it is believed that only 12 thousand of these are on the Popular Mobilization payrolls while the entitlements of the rest are paid by the Holy Shrines), out of the Mobilization forces of 135 thousand fighters, more than half of which belong to the loyalist factions which control alone more than 22 brigades. This led Maytham al-Zaidi, commander of the al-Abbas Combat Division, to protest openly in 2016 against the injustice experienced by the “Iraqi” factions.

With the declaration of victory over ISIS in late 2017, the severity of the criticisms by the commanders of the Holy Shrines factions abated, apparently pending the results of the plans of the former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to restructure the Mobilization forces in a manner that would reduce their exclusive management by the “loyalists”. Those plans were finalized in the Diwani Order issued by his successor Adil Abdul-Mahdi in July 2019, which can be summarized as follows:

1- Incorporation of all Popular Mobilization factions in the security establishment under the command of the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces and the supervision of the PMC chairman who is to be appointed by the Commander-in-Chief.

2- Renouncement of all denominations used by the Mobilization factions in liberation battles and their replacement with military denominations (division, brigade, regiment, etc.). All personnel will be assigned the military ranks in use in the armed forces.

3- Those units (individuals and formations) will cut off any political or supervisory association with the former organizations.

However, the procedure which seemed to constitute the beginning of the end of the hegemony by loyalist factions over the PMC soon turned into a tool to liquidate the Holy Shrines factions which found themselves target of attempts to dismantle their units and disperse their fighters in parallel with a cleansing campaign in the ranks of the counter-terrorism forces and the army that brought down a group of the most prominent and popular generals while the loyalist factions were given the right to retain their independence, formation unity, private internal and external political linkages and, most importantly, monopoly of the PMC’s internal decision making.

An additional crisis

The killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis during the US raid on 3 January 2020 drove the loyalist factions to promptly re-organise their ranks within the Mobilization forces by establishing a small command that is doctrinally more committed to the Iranian project in Iraq, which was called the Mobilization Shura (Consultative) Council and whose first decision on 21 February 2020 was to appoint, Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammedawi “Abu Fadak” (information indicates that he was the second man in the Hezbollah Battalions militia in Iraq) in the post of chief-of-staff. The decision was submitted to the Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Adil Abdul-Mahdi for approval in what appeared more of a formality, especially after the PMC chairman Falih al-Fayyadh denied his knowledge of the existence of such a council, let alone the legality of taking such a decision.

One day after revealing the appointment of al-Mohammedawi, the Holy Shrines factions issued a statement of opposition that marked their first clear divergence from the rest of the loyalist factions and in which they underlined their unawareness of this appointment and that it lacks the legal foundations under a caretaker government. Considering that this statement would not have been released without the go-ahead of the office of the Superior Shiite Leader, it has marked the beginning of a new round of open conflict between Najaf and Tehran over the future of the Mobilization due to political reasons that have to do with the need for the institution’s combat doctrine to serve the interests of the Iraqi state and in a way that would protect the country from getting involved in a disproportionate war with the US on behalf of Iran.

This conflict came after months of a hidden confrontation behind the popular protests that erupted early October 2019 and whose demands were supported by al-Sistani, mainly maintenance of the country’s independence and putting an end to the “non-state” model that the loyalist factions seek to establish as a new reality in the service of Iranian interests.

Since that date, complaints by the Holy Shrines factions have increased about the injustice in the distribution of financial allocations, posts and other logistical matters within the PMC. The Guardian of the al-Abbas Shrine and the general supervisor of the Al-Abbas Combat Division Sayyid Ahmad al-Safi got involved in the crisis during his meeting with the leaders of the four Shrine factions on 16 March 2020 by underlining Najaf’s dissatisfaction with the manner of assuming posts in the PMC, rejection of nepotism and discrimination in the distribution of gains, and his support of the rightful position taken by those leaders in dissociating the Holy Shrines factions from the Popular Mobilization system as a first step on the path of divesting the “loyalists” of the legitimacy they gained from the Authority and its Sufficient Jihad Fatwa.

The following day, the leaders of the four Holy Shrines factions met with the Minister of Defence Najah al-Shammary to coordinate the process of dissociation from the Mobilization forces and incorporation into the army forces, although he informed them that his ministry does not have the job grades or the power needed to accept the service transfer of a huge number of fighters, given that most of them do not meet the age and educational qualifications for service in the regular armed forces.

It seems that those obstacles have been overcome with the decision taken by the former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi on 22 April 2020 stipulating that the Holy Shrines factions will be linked to the armed forces Commander-in-Chief. This means that those factions are now under the Iraqi Joint Operations Command and within the Iraqi Ministry of Defence in particular.

Abdul-Mahdi’s decision to respond to the request of the Religious Authority’s Mobilization to dissociate from the Mobilization Commission came as a surprise at a time when all expectations indicated that the man, who had been known for his extreme sycophancy to Iran’s allies, would carry over the crisis file to the new government. It seems that Abdul-Mahdi took the decision for reasons related to his desire to score points in his favour with the Supreme Shiite Leader Sayyid Ali al-Sistani to support his position against any prosecution by the new government for his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in the killings of peaceful protesters since early October till he left office.

Expectations for the future of the crisis within the Popular Mobilization

Despite the deep political and doctrinal differences between both sides of the Mobilization dispute, there are still chances of reaching a compromise, especially in light of the reconciliatory mood expressed by the “loyalists” by accepting to grant Parliament’s confidence to the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, in addition to the stifling financial crisis experienced by the country as a result of the collapse of oil prices. Furthermore, the recent escalating attacks by ISIS operatives constitute a pressure factor to be reckoned with on the Holy Shrines factions to ease their pressure for reform of the Mobilization leadership, especially with the rising popular concern at the resumption of terrorist operations against major cities which necessitates refraining from distracting the PMF from their main task.

On the other hand, loyalist factions seem to be extremely worried at the shift of partisan and tribal masses towards the new formation established by the Holy Shrines factions due to the discontent by those masses at the stark discrimination in the allocation of posts and resources between Mobilization units based on their closeness to the Iranian project. This will lead to the split of the Mobilization and, therefore, the loss by the Mobilization Commission of the political and popular support, to divesting the loyalists of the capability to continue to use the religious legitimacy represented by the Sufficient Jihad Fatwa launched by the Supreme Leader al-Sistani, and to reducing the capability of the loyalist factions to manipulate the PMC’s budget to finance their external operations and support the Shiite militias in Syria. This could force the loyalists to give up some of their benefits at the level of posts and privileges.

The visit made by the new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the PMC headquarters on 16 May 2020, which was attended by representatives of the four Najaf Authority factions, was an indication of the likely de-escalation of internal differences and the fair redistribution of leadership posts within the PMC, especially that Kadhimi’s visit came one day after the statements by Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, the representative of the Supreme Shiite Leader Ali al-Sistani in Karbala, in which he called for “the implementation of the PMC law and the activation of the Mobilization structuring in its entirety”.

However, reaching a settlement between the Holy Shrines factions and the loyalist factions will face several obstacles, mainly:

1- The great difficulty that will face any attempt to rectify the allocation of posts within the PMC, 80 percent of which is directly, and the remaining percentage indirectly, controlled by the loyalists, so as to satisfy the Holy Shrines factions and the Peace Companies loyal to the Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr, to whom the loyalists had given pledges in the evening of the day Soleimani and al-Muhandis were assassinated to assign important posts within the PMC leadership to his followers, which they soon reneged when the US danger subsided.

2- The different political and doctrinal authorities of the Mobilization factions and the significant discrepancies between them on internal and external issues.

3- The tense relationship between the new Mobilization chief-of-staff al-Mohammedawi “Abu Fadak”, who embarked on his tasks even without waiting for the approval of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the commander of the al-Abbas Combat Division, Sheikh Maytham al-Zaidi, who is desired by Sayyid Ahmad al-Safi to be appointed to one of the top three posts in the PMC, namely chairman, deputy chairman or chief-of-staff.

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