On May 16, 2020, newly appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi addressed the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in a visit to their headquarters.
He was received by the government appointee PMU Chairman Falih Al-Fayyadh and other PMU commanders including Kata'ib Hezbollah Commander Abu Fadak, whose militias accused Al-Kadhimi in April of conspiring with the U.S. on killing Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
The meeting was also attended by the commanders of the four divisions affiliated with Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who on March 19 ordered the divisions' withdrawal from the PMU, citing differences over the PMU's administrative structure.
The visit, which came two days after Al-Kadhimi's visit to the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force (ICT), raised eyebrows since he pledged in his first speech before parliament to restrict the use of weapons to state institutions only, which would mean the disarmament or inclusion into state institutions of the Iran-backed militias that are part of the PMU.
At the end of the visit, Al-Fayyadh gifted Al-Kadhimi a PMU uniform, which the latter gladly accepted and put on immediately, saying: "I will wear it now for you [i.e., the PMU] and for ISIS [the Islamic State] to see and know that we are ready."
The gesture angered protesters, who were expecting Al-Kadhimi to act against the Iranian proxy militias rather than showing them respect, particularly since the role of the Iran-backed PMU factions has diminished since late 2017 following ISIS's territorial defeat in Iraq and they served in recent months as Iran's arm in attempts to violently stop mass anti-government demonstrations. Social media users in Iraq criticized the new prime minister's visit to the PMU headquarters, saying that the protesters "sent him to strip the PMU of their power, instead [the PMU] stripped him of his jacket."
This report will analyze the visit and the question of whether the PMU was able to contain Al-Kadhimi or vice-versa.
Al-Kadhimi, right, taking off his jacket off to put on the PMU uniform (source: Pmo.iq).
"PMU Is Essential In The Fight Against ISIS"
During his visit, Al-Kadhimi's commended the PMU for its heroic contributions over the past years in the fight against ISIS, and also put forward his vision for the PMU, highlighting its new role under his leadership as his government plans to address several challenges including the recent upsurge of ISIS attacks.
"I am happy to be with you, the heroes of the PMU, the power that frightens ISIS especially these days when – as you know – there are attempts by ISIS to regain a foothold in order to prove that they are achieving something, and the truth is that ISIS is still assembling its remnants despite all the [Iraqi forces'] victories," he said.
In his remarks, Al-Kadhimi also assigned the more than 130,000 PMU fighters, who are well-equipped, trained, and ideologically motivated, the role of the core force in the fight against ISIS, saying that they will be on the frontlines during the upcoming military operations that he intends to launch soon.
"I would like to inform you of a happy news and let ISIS hear me: We will soon launch large-scale military operations and the PMU will have a major role, with a major essential participation in eliminating this enemy and the epidemic [ISIS]," he said.
PMU Commanders during their reception of Al-Kadhimi (source: screenshots from the video provided by the Iraqi prime minister's media office)
In his remarks, Al-Kadhimi reassured the commanders of their future status but stressed they will have to be part of the Iraqi state institutions, saying: "The PMU is the PMU of this country and it is a state institution and a legal entity." He demanded time and again, that they have to comply with the PMU law of 2016.
"We Will Not Give Up On The Law Of The PMU"
During the meeting, Al-Kadhimi repeatedly emphasized his obligation as prime minister and command-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces to put into effect the law passed by Iraqi parliament in December 2016 to incorporate the PMU into the country's armed forces.
"You must know, dear brothers, that protecting you is part of my responsibility and that we will not give up on the law of the PMU, which defines the [PMU] legal framework in order to protect your dignity, your rights, and those of the martyrs of this heroic PMU," he said.
In this regard, Al-Kadhimi's intentions are twofold. His first intention is to enforce discipline on the PMU within the state's order and laws and make them a fully subordinate organ of state power. His second intention is to ensure that the PMU factions will not be involved in attacks against U.S. troops, which they have been doing until recently, including a minor one on May 19.
This is an important and urgent goal for Al-Kadhimi because, even though the law was passed nearly four years ago, the previous Iraqi governments have exercised only limited control over the PMU, which refused calls to merge with the Iraqi Armed Forces or disband.
Limiting The PMU's Independence Of Decision
In line with his emphasis on the legal framework of the PMU, Al-Kadhimi signaled to PMU commanders that their compliance with his commands is a condition for their survival as a state entity, saying that they need to show discipline, which is vital in building trust between the PMU and the rest of the state institutions.
"The PMU is a state institution and a legal entity that reports to the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and to the head of the PMU [i.e., Al-Fayyadh]. You have all the support, you have all the protection, and I am ready at all times to implement all that you request in regard of protecting this nation," he stated.
He further stressed the need for the PMU to coordinate plans with the rest of the Iraqi armed forces, whose commanders often complain that the PMU acts unilaterally. Such a move would ensure that the PMU is under the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, which coordinates with the U.S.-led coalition: "The power of the state comes from you, and from the army and security forces, and we must all work in a spirit of discipline, especially under the framework and the law that protects you to restore the stature of the state and contribute to the restoration of the reputation of Iraq... The strength of the state is when its institutions are in harmony with one another," he said.
The PMU's Loyalty Should Be To Iraq And Al-Sistani
Al-Kadhimi also addressed a critical point in his remarks that hitherto no other Iraqi official openly discussed with the PMU leaders: its loyalty to Iran.
While the PMU owes its existence to the June 2014 fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who mobilized Iraqis to bear arms to fight ISIS, the fact is that over the years the PMU factions have become strong loyalists to Iran and its Wilayat Al-Faqih ideology, with the exception of Al-Sistani's four divisions and Sayara Al-Salam, which is linked to populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr who – at least in theory – abides by Al-Sistani's guidance.
In the meeting at PMU's headquarters, Al-Kadhimi made it very clear that in order for PMU commanders to continue to exist as a state entity with the privileges that come along with this status, such as their government-paid salaries, logistical support, and state protection, their loyalty should be to Iraq and to Al-Sistani only.
"The doctrine of the PMU is the doctrine of loyalty, a loyalty to this country and loyalty to this Marja'iya [i.e., Al-Sistani] that has protected Iraq throughout history, without discrimination toward any Iraqi, and so should you," he said.
"The Martyrs' Blood Will Not Go To Waste"
While commending the PMU's efforts and sacrifices in fighting ISIS, Al-Kadhimi also pledged to honor the families of their martyrs, but he reminded the PMU commanders, some of whom are involved of repressing protesters under the outgoing government of Adel Abdul Mahdi, that he will not forget the bloods of "martyrs, all martyrs," tactfully implying that he will hold those involved in killing protesters accountable. He said: "I would like to remind you about one more issue: Our martyrs, their blood will not go to waste, all of them."
Reactions By PMU Commanders: Endorsing Al-Kadhimi's Government And Welcoming The Role Assigned To Them Against ISIS
The PMU commanders who attended the meeting showed support for Al-Kadhimi's government, with the role he assigned to them to fight the upsurge in ISIS attacks in recent months as expressed by a statement issued by the director of the PMU media department, Muhand Al-Eqabi, who described Al-Kadhimi's visit as "the most important of all the visits paid by his predecessors."
Al-Kadhimi's "visit to the PMU focused on showing support to the PMU and silenced those who said that there was a dispute between him and the PMU."
In his statement, Al-Eqabi noted that there is a "great harmony" between the prime minister and the PMU in regard to honoring PMU fighters "who are fully ready to root out ISIS terrorists."
PMU Media Director Muhand Al-Eqabi (source: Hashad.net)
Statements by PMU commanders who were not present at the meeting reflect suspicion of Al-Kadhimi's intentions. Among those was Kata'ib Hezbollah's military commander Abu Ali Al-Askari, who tweeted in response to Al-Kadhimi's remarks, saying that "approving one thing does not conflict with its opposite [i.e., fighting ISIS]. Believing, sacrificing, defending the country we belong to does not mean we should not believe, sacrifice, defend occupied Muslim lands."
Al-Askari's tweet on May 17, 2020 (source: Twitter.com)
Al-Askari's tweet, which also marked Al-Qods Day, highlights Kata'ib Hezbollah's partial disapproval of Al-Kadhimi's plan for the PMU. In his tweet, Al-Askari indicated that he is accepting Al-Kadhimi's assignment for the PMU to defend Iraq against ISIS, but he is against forbidding the PMU from fighting against the "occupation," probably hinting at the PMU's regional activities as a resistance movement.
Likewise, Bashar Al-Sa'idi, the media officer of Al-Nujaba Movement, expressed suspicion of Al-Kadhimi's intentions when he commented on a tweet of a photo of Al-Kadhimi wearing the PMU jacket gifted to him by the commanders. "A photo that bears a number of possibilities. Spontaneity is almost completely non-existent," Al-Sa'idi wrote.
Al-Kadhimi thanking PMU commander for the gift (source: Pmo.iq)
Falih Al-Fayyadh, the Iraqi National Security Advisor and Chairman of the PMU showed the most consenting signs with Al-Kadhimi's remarks. In a long television interview with state-run Al-Iraqyia, Al-Fayyadh said that the PMU commanders welcomed Al-Kadhimi's visit, adding that they were pleased to hear Al-Kadhimi's remarks and his readiness to support and honor the sacrifices that the PMU fighters made.
He also explained that the new prime minister discussed plans to improve the structure of the PMU in order to ensure consensus among all factions including the Al-Sistani-backed divisions. He acknowledged that Al-Sistani has some reservations on the performance of the PMU and he would like the factions "to show more discipline," pointing out that [Al-Fayydh] agrees that the PMU "needs to be contained."
Speaking on the relations between the PMU and the U.S. in light of the upcoming talks to discuss a new Strategic Framework Agreement on the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, Al-Fayadh said that the U.S. officials are being more "reasonable now," acknowledging that the PMU and U.S. forces had not attacked each other for a few months.
Al-Fayyadh, who participated in the December 31, 2019 storming by PMU supporters of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, explained now the PMU feels "it is important to maintain relations with the Americans," and that the latter are now more willing to accept the presence of a NATO force to replace the U.S. troops.
Falah Al-Fayadh in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (source: twitter.com)
Al-Fayyadh's soft tone toward the U.S. suggests that some PMU factions are showing more flexibility as they wait for Al-Kadhimi's government stance vis-a-vis the Iraqi parliamentary decision to expel U.S. troops when he sits with the State Department's delegation to negotiate a new agreement in June.
At the same time, it should be considered that Al-Fayyadh may have a personal interest in accommodating Al-Kadhimi's demands in order to keep his position. In this regard, it is worth noting that Al-Fayyadh's parliamentary bloc "Al-Atta" voted on endorsing the appointment of Al-Kadhimi as prime minister.
Imam Al-Abbas Combat Division, one of the four divisions backed by Al-Sistani, issued a brief statement, highlighting that their leadership attended the meeting at the PMU headquarters in response of Al-Kadhimi's invitation, signaling that they attended out of courtesy toward Al-Kadhimi but they are not part of the PMU.
Al-Abbas Division statement (source: Facebook.com).
Iran Extends "Unflinching Support" To Al-Kadhimi's Government
While Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) establishment continued to maintain their thundering silence over the appointment of Al-Kadhimi and his performance over the past days, Iran's state officials are waiting on the new Iraqi government hand and foot.
On May 19, Iranian President Hassan Rohani phoned Iraqi President Barham Salih to congratulate him on the upcoming Eid Al-Fitr and extending his country's support to Iraq's "political stability which is important for the region, and a precondition for Iraq to regain a prominent role in the region."
Iranian President Rohani and Iraqi President Salih
Salih's office issued a statement on the call, saying that the two presidents also emphasized the need to ease tensions to establish security and peace in the region. The statement said that Rohani invited Salih to visit Tehran, but the latter said he will visit "at the appropriate time."
In a telephone conversation with Al-Kadhimi last week, Rohani vowed "unflinching support" for the new Iraqi government, stressing the need to further enhance bilateral relations and work toward the implementation of the joint agreements.
Moreover, on May 17 and on a video call with new Iraqi Defense Minister Juma Inad, the Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami said that Iraq will have all of Iran's defense capabilities "at its disposal," adding that Iran seeks a strategic partnership with the new Iraqi government. He further wished the new government of Iraq success in fulfilling the national demands, improving the economic situation and fighting against the coronavirus, noting that "the Iranian Defense Ministry will donate a consignment of COVID-19 diagnostic test kits and other coronavirus-related medical supplies to the Iraqi embassy in Tehran."
However, up to this very moment Al-Kadhimi's government continues to reject Iranian pressure to re-open the borders between the countries, which also may be due to the measures to contain the COVID-19 health crisis.
In view of Al-Kadhimi's goal to regain Iraq's independence, how can his visit to the PMU headquarters, one of the biggest domestic challenge to this independence, be interpreted?
The explanation lies in the three simultaneous challenges facing Al-Kadhimi: First, he inherited the PMU from his predecessors as a formidable force that has proven its willingness to play the role of Iran's proxy in its meddling in Iraq.
Second, following developments external to Iraq, the previously defeated ISIS now poses again a real threat to Iraq's territorial integrity. Their Sunni zeal can only be dealt with through the PMU's Shi'ite zeal together with their proven military know-how, as the Iraqi Army is obviously unable to fulfil that task.
The logical conclusion is to refrain from a clash with the needed PMU, but explicitly limit their role in fulfilling the national goal of defeating ISIS. This approach is in line with Al-Kadhimi's vision of an independent Iraq, as he stressed several times during his remarks during the visit, saying that the PMU must be kept as a national force, loyal only to the Iraqi constitution and to the legal framework adopted by the government, while its religious loyalty solely derived from Iraq's highest Shi'ite authority of Al-Sistani.
Al-Kadhimi used the gesture of wearing the jacket of the PMU uniform to stress his message to the PMU, which is: We stand together in defeating ISIS, which is now the PMU's only task.
Expectedly, the fine line that Al-Kadhimi threaded was not universally accepted or even understood. It has disappointed some of the protesters and aroused objection from some PMU commanders.
However, it seems that overall, he succeeded, at least for the time being, in gaining the support of the PMU's commanders, and some other commanders, who only few weeks ago considered his appointment to be "a declaration of war on the Iraqi people."
*Yigal Carmon is Founder and President of MEMRI; S. Ali is an American-Iraqi research fellow at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Clip No. 7998 Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi Dons PMU Uniform, Says: The PMU Plays a Fundamental Role in Iraq's Security, Unity; Together, We Will Soon Launch Wide-scale Military Operations to Ensure That ISIS Does Not Return, May 16, 2020.
See MEMRI Dispatch No. 8602 Battle For Iraq's Premiership: Iran-Backed Shi'ite Factions Seek To Marginalize Al-Sistani, Obstruct Appointment of Pro-U.S. Intelligence Chief Al-Kadhemi As PM, And Try To Reinstate Pro-Iran Abdul Mahdi, March 3, 2020.
 See MEMRI Dispatch No. 8483 After His Call To End U.S. Military Presence In Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi Seeks To Be Reinstated As Iraq's Prime Minister With The Support Of Pro-Iran Lawmakers, Jan 29, 2020.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1511, Iraq On The Path Of National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony, May 12, 2020
 Arabi21.com, May 17, 2020.
 Moj.gov.iq, last accessed May 20,2020.
 Al-Kadhimi ordered the Iraqi security forces to close down the headquarters of the Iran-backed militia Tha'r Allah (Vengeance of Allah) and arrest its fighters, who opened fire on protesters in Basra few days ago, Alhurra.com, May 17, 2020.
 Al-Kadhimi also instructed the Interior Ministry to use all its resources to free protesters kidnapped by "political groups and the organized crime gangs," Pmo.iq, May 17.2020.
 Al-hashed.net, May 16, 2020.
 Twitter.com/abualialaskary, May 17, 2020.
 Twitter.com/Bashar85saad, May 16, 2020.
 Youtube.com/watch?v=wGKS1kkeFyQ&feature=youtu.be, May 17, 2020.
 Facebook.com/alabbas.combat, May 16, 2020.
 Ninanews.com, May 18, 2020
 Rudaw.net, May 10, 2020.
 See MEMRI Dispatch No. 8602 Battle For Iraq's Premiership: Iran-Backed Shi'ite Factions Seek To Marginalize Al-Sistani, Obstruct Appointment of Pro-U.S. Intelligence Chief Al-Kadhemi As PM, And Try To Reinstate Pro-Iran Abdul Mahdi, March 3, 2020.