Shia cleric latest in warning of Iranian-backed militias’ involvement in Iraqi elections
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Monday called on the country’s Prime Minister to prevent leaders of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), from running in the upcoming elections and to launch an investigation into the fall of Mosul into the hands of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014.
In a televised speech on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a decisive victory over IS in Iraq. The fate of the PMF, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, however, remains unclear.
The PMF were formed a few days after the jihadist group emerged in northern Iraq and took over large swaths of territory in 2014. A fatwa issued by Iraqi Shia Spiritual Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani rallied the militias into engaging with IS to protect the southern regions after the Iraqi Army collapsed.
Iraq is set to hold general elections in May and a number of Hashd al-Shaabi leaders have indicated their desire to run, despite Abadi asserting that political factions with armed groups would not be “allowed” to participate in the elections—a statement which angered senior PMF leaders.
“We ask the Iraqi government not to allow the Hashd al-Shaabi, under any circumstances, to participate in the elections, and to prevent PMF leaders from running,” Sadr said in a speech broadcasted on various Iraqi channels.
He added that the central government should “remove uncontrollable elements” in the Iraqi security forces, and “punish those responsible” following reports of human rights violations during the fight against IS. Sadr claims his demands are aimed at “preserving the PMF’s reputation.”
“We advise our brothers in all factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi to hand over their weapons to the federal government and work to strengthen it by enabling it to impose its control over all of Iraq’s territory,” Sadr continued.
There are an estimated 122,000 fighters in Iraq operating within several Shia militias, some of which are closely tied to Iran. Despite its support from the US-led international coalition, Iraqi forces have relied on the PMF in many battles against IS, particularly the battle for Mosul.
Many, including Sadr, blame former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the fall of Mosul and the subsequent massacres, allegedly in response to his policies, which his opponents labeled sectarian in nature.
Sadr called on the current government to “immediately open an investigation into the fall of Mosul and the rest of the provinces” as well as the infamous Speicher massacre.
The cleric also has an armed faction known as Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigade, which follows the orders of its religious leader above that of the government. Sadr claims his brigade will be committed to handing over their weapons to the Iraqi Federal Government, but laid out a number of conditions for the demilitarization of the militias.
The dismantling of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq has become a more pressing issue lately, despite alarms being raised by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) following the Oct. 16 attack and takeover of Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
On Dec 2, when the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nechirvan Barzani, visited Paris, along with the Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the gradual dismantling of those militias.
Macron was soon seconded by the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who called on Baghdad to “move away from the rule of sectarian militias.”