LOSING PATIENCE WITH IRAN: In a sign of how public opinion about controversial, semi-official militias are changing, four factions leave the larger fold, to show their loyalty to Iraq.

Last week, four of the militias loyal to the country’s religious leader, announced they were splitting from the rest of the often-controversial Shiite Muslim group of fighters. It could be a sign of how much opinions about the remainder of the group are changing.

By Mustafa Habib, in Baghdad

There is no doubt that the withdrawal of the military groups closely associated with Iraqi religious leader, Ali al-Sistani, who is very much respected by ordinary Shiite Muslims, makes the other militias look bad. It indicates that al-Sistani disapproves of the militias who say they are more loyal to Iran, and clerics there, than they are to Iraqi leaders.

On one hand, it could lead to a loss of legitimacy for those militias who remain in the larger group. On the other hand, that larger, more extreme group could gain more power now that the more moderate al-Sistani-associated groups have left.

A few days ago, a government document was made public. In it the four factions associated with al-Sistani – Imam Ali, Ali Al Akbar, Abbas and the Ansar Al Marjaiya militias – will now be under the control of the Iraqi prime minister’s office. At the moment, the prime minister is still Adel Abdul Mahdi, who remains in charge until a new head of government is appointed.

In 2014, as the extremist group known as the Islamic State was gaining ground in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite Muslim cleric in the country, called for volunteers to help defend the country against the extremists. This resulted in the formation of a number of militias, made up of the mostly Shiite Muslim volunteers.

The original plan was to have the volunteers fight under the control of the Ministry of Defence. However, as Iran began to fund and sponsor many of the militia groups, it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. After the extremist Islamic State group, or ISIS, was pushed out of most parts of the country, the militias could potentially have disbanded. Instead, they became a semi-official part of Iraq’s armed forces.

A new military commission was established that was independent of the local Ministries of Defence and the Interior.

The Shiite Muslim militias themselves are divided into three main groups, with some professing loyalty to the Iraqi government and the Shiite Muslim religious authorities in Najaf, while others openly admit they take orders from neighbouring Iran and Iranian clerics. A third group is affiliated with the Iraqi clerics, Muqtada al-Sadr or Ammar al-Hakim.

The groups affiliated with al-Sistani are seen as the least political and most neutral. In the recent past they have been the militias called into action during particularly politically sensitive battles, such as the fight to remove ISIS from the Sunni Muslim-majority city of Mosul. That differs from the militias affiliated with al-Sadr – the cleric himself is more political. In fact, al-Sadr has stated he won’t leave the larger group of militias because he fears then he would be leaving all the power to the  extreme militias.

These two groups tend to be more moderate. In general, they have not been accused of systematic war crimes and they have also expressed interest in being incorporated into the Iraqi army or to disband.

Those factions that are loyal to Iran differ from the others in that they are the most well-armed and more powerful than the others. They are called the Walaei militias – the word means “loyal” – and they say that they prefer to obey Iran’s spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that they see Iraq and Syria as one military front, where they will continue to fight even after the Islamic State, or IS, group has been expelled.

Additionally, the leaders of many of the Iran-loyalist militias were around far longer than al-Sistani’s call for volunteers. They have experience in the field, as well as in managing these groups of armed men.

The fact that the militias closer to al-Sistani have decided to leave the larger, official group was welcomed by the Iran loyalists. They know this means they will be seen in a more critical light by Iraqi society at large and that this could be a handicap, as they strive for legitimacy. There’s no doubt their actions will be more closely examined and there is some danger that – even more so now – they will be perceived as loyal to Iran, not Iraq. On the other hand, they no longer have to try and work with their critics.

Leaders of militias associated with al-Sistani meet with Ministry of Defence officials in March.

The conflict between the militias loyal to al-Sistani and the other factions goes right back to the senior cleric’s call for volunteers in 2014. The plan was to have those volunteers fight under the leadership of the Iraqi army and police. In his all-important weekly sermons, the cleric never called the militias by the name they are commonly known – the Popular Mobilization forces, or PMF. He always called them volunteers.

Since they were formed, the militias affiliated with al-Sistani have complained about being marginalized, when it came to salaries for the fighters and the supply of weapons. The deputy head of the PMF – Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes – was closely linked to the militias who favoured Iran (al-Mohandes was killed in the same drone attack that killed Iranian commander, Qasim Soleimani in January this year).

There were also other differences. For example, al-Sistani was a supporter of the law eventually passed by parliament to better organize – and rein in – the PMF militias. However militias leaders opposed this law and did their best to delay its implementation.

The commander of one of the al-Sistani affiliated militias – Maytham al-Zaidi, the head of the Abbas brigade – had criticized the PMF’s management many times. He had been vocal about the choice of al-Mohandes to head the group, saying that the appointment had been made in collaboration with the Iran loyalists, not according to Iraqi laws.

The four militias associated with al-Sistani had even previously stated that they wanted to start operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence.

A turning point in this divisive group came after US forces targeted pro-Iranian militias, after they were alleged to have bombed US camps inside Iraq. One of the US raids was aimed at militias stationed in Karbala.

While al-Sistani condemned the US attack on Iraqi soil, fighters loyal to him began to feel how dangerous it was going to get, to be associated with the Iran-loyalist militias. Again they expressed intentions to leave the larger PMF group and to have the Ministry of Defence as their new bosses.

This attempt was not successful, apparently for technical and administrative reasons. Apparently the fighters in the militias had not been trained to the same standards as regular Iraqi army soldiers, nor been subject to the same standards, with regard to age, professionalism and length of training. This apparently made it too difficult to integrate them.

But a solution was eventually found: The militias could work under the office of the prime minister, after Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has resigned but not yet left office, was persuaded to take them on. The counter terrorism unit is also associated with the prime minister’s office.

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