The government of Iraq has doubled down its support of militia forces. Baghdad has announced that the Hashd al-Shaabi militias, also called the Popular Mobilization Units, will receive a salary equal to their equivalents in the Iraqi military.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government is the first to implement the long-awaited pay scheme. As the government debated its policy toward payments have been held-up for nearly two months.
The move could complicate Iraqi-American relations as the United States seeks the disbandment of Iran-supported militias in Iraq which make up a large part of the PMU. The move has also angered Iraqi Security Forces officers who will now be considered the equal of lesser trained units of the PMU.
Mahdi’s predecessor Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi first announced the pay increase earlier this year before he was ousted from power.
“However, election season shifted some of Abadi’s positions toward Hashd,” Mohammed Husain Jassem, an expert on Iraqi paramilitary groups, told The Defense Post from Iraq. “Many of them have families that they haven’t been able to take care of.”
The announcement comes as Mahdi’s government has yet to fully take shape. There is currently neither a minister of interior nor minister of defense, the lack of which may have contributed to the ease in which Mahdi’s government pushed through the new policy.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense has been wary of these groups, and traditionally the PMF receives its salary from the Popular Mobilization Authority. The Trump Administration has singled out Iranian support for the militias, many of whom draw succour from Iran.
“This is welcomed by many Iraqis because they see the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and Hashd as the same. They deserve equal pay due to the sacrifices they made, Al Hashd units were leading the charge in some of the toughest battles against Da’esh,” said Jassem.
Jassem believes that increased funding from the Iraqi government will reduce the reliance on Iran by many Shia militia units. The United States has publicly demanded that Iran must end its support for Shia militia units in Iraq and that those units must be disbanded. The new demand is one of 12 key ones that the United States is seeking in exchange for removing new sanctions placed on Iran last week.
With 6 days to go before the sanctions deadline, this is the 6th requirement for #Iran’s regime to behave like a normal state: The Iranian regime must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias. pic.twitter.com/IRsZR90KmN
— Department of State (@StateDept) October 30, 2018
“The Iranian regime must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias,” the State Department tweeted from its official account ahead of the reimposition of sanctions lifted in 2016.
In response to the tweet, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmad Mahjoub said that the United States had violated international law adding, “Iraq rejects interference in its internal issues, especially issues of internal security reform and the status of Iraqi security forces.”
Asked to comment on the salary issue, Colonel Sean Ryan, the spokesperson of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. mission against Islamic State, told The Defense Post: “Iraq is a sovereign nation and has been a consistent and very good partner with the Coalition. A lot of groups from Iraq came together in the fight against ISIS, and we trust our Iraqi partners will make sound decisions to better their country.”
First formed in 2014, often from pre-existing paramilitary organizations, PMU forces have played an instrumental role in Iraq’s battle with ISIS. The PMU have fought in every engagement against the group in Iraq and also at times continued across the border in neighboring Syria.
The forces have been increasingly regularized by the Iraqi government but payment to Iraqi Security Forces is unprecedented. Estimates of the size of the force range from 60,000-150,000 with some members of the organization also having a role in Iraq’s formal military structures.
The United States offered rare praise of the group last year.
“The entire Coalition salutes and wishes God’s blessings on the brave Iraqi soldiers, police and militias who today are fighting to liberate their country and make the region and the world a safer place,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, then the Operation Inherent Resolve commander, said in a February 2017 statement.
Some Hashd groups have described American forces as “invaders” and promised to target U.S. forces over America’s opposition to Assad regime in Syria. International human rights groups have accused Hashd of human rights violations – accusations which have never been proven.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein and even under the British has a long tradition of armed paramilitary groups.
Sources told The Defense Post that some members of the formal Iraqi Army are angered by the move and see it as yet another sign of growing corruption in the country.
In the analysis of Majid Al Qaysi, a retired Iraqi general and former Director of Intelligence Analysis for the Directorate of Military of Intelligence with Iraqi of Ministry of Defense, the Hashd issue has its origins in the Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq until May 2004.
During his tenure, the Iraqi Army was disbanded without the prior consent of the U.S. Defense Department or President George W. Bush.
“Paul Bremer allowed the parties that were in opposition to Saddam that was living in Iran to enter the army [without training] as officers. He allowed private contractors to train the Iraqi Army. This is the root of the policy regarding Hashd as we see today,” Qaysi said.
“The problem with the regularization of the militias is that you have army officers, effectively, who have not entered the Iraqi military college and some of them do not have a scientific or even military degree.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1822 GMT on November 15, 2018 to remove an erroneous reference to Ian Bremmer. The Defense Post regrets the error.