Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has now to grapple with enormous challenges following the killing of its commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a US drone strike in early January this year. Al-Muhandis was the mastermind and chief architect of all of Iran's loyal factions, which have been buckling under mounting U.S. pressure. The US designated the PMF a terrorist organization and slapped major financial sanctions targeting a significant number of its leaders. This is in addition to U.S. and Israeli drone strikes against the group's camps and missile depots.
This paper highlights the impact of the Al-Muhandis death on the PMF, the subjective and objective challenges the group faces, and the potential ramifications on its cohesion and role.
An Iranian Loss
Although the killing of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in the U.S. strike, which was basically intended to neutralize Iran's Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, near Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd this year, was "collateral damage" according to U.S. officials, it, however, dealt another major blow to Iran. Al-Muhandis played a major role, from behind the scenes, in establishing Iran's influence in Iraq and linked it with Tehran's schemes and quest for regional domination.
Needless to say, Al-Muhandis was Iran's chief proxy in Iraq along the lines of Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. This may make the succession of Al-Muhandis within the PMF a strong reason for conflict between the leaders of Iran's loyalist groups in Iraq.
The past four months were marked by a number of crises that put the "PMF" before crucial challenges, which are expected to be further complicated by the absence of their mastermind, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, and his longtime companion General Qasem Soleimani, the man who was responsible for Iraq in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. These challenges include:
The "PMF" consists of three categories that vary in size, impact, influence and connections. They are:
Despite the perceived unity and harmony between Iran-loyal factions, as translated in the Fatah Alliance in the May 2018 elections, personal competition and factional struggle continued to simmer beneath the surface. Only the overwhelming presence of Al-Muhandis and Soleimani, who succeeded in curbing factional disputes and keeping them under check either by carrots or sticks, prevented these disputes from coming to the fore but fell short of addressing the underlying causes which include the following:
Al-Amiri: The Alternative
After the killing of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and amidst a state of fear and confusion among the leaders of pro-Iranian factions, there was no alternative before those leaders but to name Hadi al-Amiri as the deputy head of the PMF, which was held by Al-Muhandis who was also the chief of the PMF staff, and forward Al-Amiri's nomination to the prime minister for endorsement. Elevating Al-Amiri, who is the leader of the Fatah Alliance, was driven by a number of considerations, most notably:
But Al-Amiri, meanwhile, lacks several things that could complicate his mission, including:
Post-Al-Muhandis PMF - Future Scenarios
First Scenario: Proceeding with arrangements to fill the void left by the death of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, to ensure that the PMF's dominance over the political landscape is preserved. This scenario seems likely, as differences between the armed factions are not likely to lead to actual division in the future for several reasons, most notably:
Second Scenario: The failure to fill the void and intra-factional conflicts. This scenario is based on the hypothesis that the death of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis has created a major void at the level of command and control that the man managed to establish over many years, thanks to his personal contact with the commander of the Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, with whom he has close relations over thirty years old. This is something that the leaders of the Iran-loyal factions lack, especially those who rose after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and are characterized by revolutionist tendency, lack of political experience, and thirst for power and leadership. This means that the new commander of the Quds Force will need time to understand the dimensions of the fierce rivalry between them, which may open the way for differences to develop into actual divisions. This scenario is supported by a number of considerations, the most important of which are:
Zeinab F. Shuker | 21 Jan 2021
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