Iran's network of influence in Iraq has taken a beating over the past two days as four major Shi'ite factions announced their withdrawal from the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), citing internal differences and regional influence as reasons for their decision.
This announcement coincided with the effort of the Iraqi President Barham Saleh, along with anti-Iran parliamentary blocs, to push for an independent candidate for the prime minister post. The nomination of Adnan Al-Zurfi as a PM-designate triggered angry reaction among Iranian-backed politicians who see his close ties with the U.S. as a threat to Tehran's agenda.
Iran's proxies in Iraq appear not to have recovered from the loss of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's Qods Force commander Qassim Soleimani and PMU deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis who were killed on December 31, 2019, in a U.S. drone strike. Their split over Al-Zurfi appears to be an extension of the chaos that the deaths of these two commanders caused.
Al-Sistani Aligned Factions Withdraw From PMU
On March 18, 2020, four Shi'ite factions aligned with Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani announced that they have agreed to integrate their fighters into the state's security forces. These factions are: the Imam Ali Brigade, Imam Ali Combat Division, Al-Abbas Combat Division, and Ansar of Al-Murj'ayia [Supporters of the Seminary].
Commanders of Al-Sistani's factions during the meeting with the Iraqi defense minister.
The news came after a meeting held yesterday in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense between the commanders of four factions and Iraqi Defense Minister Najah Al-Shammari to discuss the mechanism to implement the integration, said local reports.
According to local media, the attendees of the meeting stressed "the need for PMU factions to move away from the influence of international and regional axes and focus their attention on combating ISIS and be within the authority of the Iraqi state."
The commanders of these four factions met earlier with their counterparts from the Iran-backed factions to inform them officially of their decision to split from the PMU, right after they secured the approval of Al-Sistani's top aide Sheikh Abul Mahdi Al-Kurbalai. Local reports highlighted that "other factions and individual fighters" expressed their desire to follow suit, adding that some already contacted Al-Sistani's aides to facilitate their integration as well.
The withdrawal of these well-equipped and trained factions from the PMU signals what appears to be a decision by the top cleric to terminate his own 2014 fatwa in which he obliged every Iraqi capable of carrying arms to defend the country against the Islamic State (ISIS). The fatwa was later used as a legitimate cover by Iran-backed factions to establish armed factions outside the authority of the Iraqi state.
Iran-backed factions within the PMU have since been accused of committing war crimes in Sunni areas that were under ISIS control and attacking the U.S.-led coalition forces. Former Iraqi PM Abdul-Mahdi issued a decree in July 2019 ordering all PMU forces to integrate fully into the state security forces, yet no practical steps have been taken to implement the decision.
The withdrawal of Al-Sistani's loyalists from the PMU followed news about escalating tension with Iran-backed PMU over the selection of a new PMU deputy commander to replace Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. On February 22, Al-Sistani factions issued a joint statement rejecting the nomination of Abu Fadak, a senior commander of Iran-backed Kata'ib Hizbullah, as a PMU deputy commander, implying that they would withdraw from the PMU if the government does not limit Iranian influence within the institution.
President Saleh Names Anti-Iran PM-Designate
On the same day that Al-Sistani's factions announced their withdrawal from PMU, Iraqi President Braham Saleh named Adnan Al-Zurfi as prime minister-designate and tasked him with forming a cabinet within 30 days, which must then be put to a vote of confidence in Iraqi parliament. Al-Zurfi, who is also a U.S. citizen, served for three terms as governor of Najaf and is an MP of the Al-Nasr parliamentary bloc of former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi.
President Saleh (left) with Al-Zurfi during the designation ceremony.
Al-Zurfi's nomination is a blow to the Iran-backed blocs that have been pushing to keep Adel Abdul Mahdi as premier. Statements of condemnation for the president's nomination of Al-Zurfi poured in from Iran-backed politicians, who accused Al-Zurfi and Saleh of being U.S. agents and threatened to sack the latter, saying that the nomination was unconstitutional.
A joint statement by the Iran-backed Al-Fateh parliamentary coalition said that its members reject the nomination and will use "all legal, political and popular methods and means to stop it," warning that Al-Zurfi's nomination for the prime minister post threatens Iraq's civil peace." However, some of the bloc members attended the designation ceremony at President Saleh's office. The local media also published leaked documents showing that some Iran-backed MPs endorsed Al-Zurfi, who is said to have good relations with Al-Sistani. Meanwhile, Sunni and Kurdish blocs remained silent about the nomination, signaling their implicit approval.
Muqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Sa'roon parliamentary bloc, tweeted what appears to be his approval of Al-Zurfi. He said: "Whether the nominee was chosen according to constitutional standards or not, this is an Iraqi matter," and "our friends in the neighboring countries [i.e., Iran] and others, particularly the occupier [i.e., U.S.] should not intervene." He also blamed the Shi'ite blocs who failed to agree on a nominee for any "unconstitutional violation that might have happened," saying "their disagreement and failure to agree on a nominee" was behind choosing Al-Zurfi, "a candidate who is not close to any of us."
On his side, Qais Al-Khazali, leader of Iran backed of Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq Movement tweeted a criticism letter addressed to President Saleh, saying that Al-Zurfi's nomination contradicts the desire of Al-Sistani, who instructed the political class back in January to select a non-controversial candidate for the prime minister post. Al-Khazali added that the protesters in Baghdad and other major cities rejected Al-Zurfi and that President Saleh violated the constitution and subsequently, Saleh is "threatening the civil peace in Iraq." He also accused Al-Zurfi of corruption, saying that he abused his position as governor of Najaf.
Iraq's Judicial High Council Chairman Faeq Zaydan, who is backed by Iran, said in a statement that President Saleh's designation of Al-Zurfi was unconstitutional. However, the Iraqi Federal Court, which has the jurisdiction to address such matters, said the designation was constitutional.
 Nrttv.com, March 19, 2020.
 See MEMRI Report Conflicting Reactions To Newly Appointed Deputy Commander Of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Signal Further Division Among Iraqi Shi'ite Ranks, Underline Iran's Struggle To Keep PMU United, February 24, 2020.
 Twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr, March 18, 2020
 Twitter.com/Qais_alkhazal, March 18, 2020.
 Nrttv.com, March 18, 2020.