Iraq’s notorious militia is setting up camp west of Mosul

Militias of the Popular Mobilization Units south-west of Mosul at the beginning of November 2016.

Militias of the Popular Mobilization Units south-west of Mosul at the beginning of November 2016.

Since its official inception shortly after the beginning of the war against the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Iraq in the summer of 2014 the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU; aka Hashd) has garnered its fair share of controversy. Human rights reports have documented their use of child soldiers and their abuse and torture of Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIS.

Given the Iranian support to these militias, the US has refused to work with them or act as their supporting air force, in the same way they have been for the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. They also fear that PMU participation in operations in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq would turn local Sunnis against the Iraqi military and the coalition, which would seriously complicate efforts to uproot and defeat ISIS.

In March 2015 the PMU single-handedly launched an offensive against then ISIS-occupied Tikrit. They told the Iraqi Army they were welcome to participate provided they forbid the US from joining up. This was an attempt to demonstrate that they could fight ISIS without Washington’s support. The stunt ended in abject failure for them. They withdrew under ISIS fire and the Iraqi Army moved in with US air support and recaptured the town in one of their first major victories against the militants since the war began (Kenneth M. Pollack, “Iraq’s Mr. Abadi Comes to Washington“, Brookings Institution, 13 April 2015).

By May 2016 the PMU had spent two years besieging ISIS in Bashir, a small farming village in the province of Kirkuk. They only succeeded in retaking that village after playing a small supporting role to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who managed to rout the militants in just a few days.

In the operation to recapture Fallujah (in May and June of this year) Baghdad allotted the PMU a supporting role in the operation, in hopes of keeping them out of the actual city. But in that role they still abused and brutalized some of the approximate 50,000 civilians who fled that bombed and ruined city throughout the course of that assault.

Since the end of October 2016, the PMU had launched an offensive towards the west of Mosul. Their goal is to cut off any option of retreat by ISIL insurgents into neighboring Syria or any reinforcement for their defense of Mosul.

Since the end of October 2016, the PMU had launched an offensive towards the west of Mosul. Their goal is to cut off any option of retreat by ISIL insurgents into neighboring Syria or any reinforcement for their defense of Mosul.

In the present operation in Mosul, a Sunni Arab-majority city with a remaining population of up to 1.2 million people in the hands of between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS militants, the coalition is again supporting the Iraqis in their endeavours against ISIS while opposing PMU participation.

The PMU have been given again a supporting role. In the two-week old operation, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been taking towns and villages from ISIS to the north, east and south, moving in closer to the city limits. Nobody has covered the west, leading to some speculation that the coalition secretly wants ISIS to evacuate Mosul to Syria to avoid a long drawn out and destructive battle in that metropolis.

Now, however, the PMU are moving in to Mosul’s west, fighting to capture Tal Afar (which has a large Turkmen population) and close off ISIS’s only escape route. This in turn means that two possible scenarios could come to be: ISIS doubles down and decides to fight to the death in Mosul knowing it has no exit route back to Syria, increasing the chance that more of Mosul will be destroyed and more civilians will be killed or ISIS tries to escape to Syria by trying to break through PMU lines.

The second scenario would be a particularly interesting one. While ISIS did fight sustained battles in Fallujah and the Syrian city of Manbij. In both cases they began withdrawing when it was clear they stood no chance. When leaving Fallujah their withdrawing convoys were bombed by both Iraqi and US coalition aircraft. From Manbij they managed to escape since the US suspected they had civilians with them as human shields.

Militia fighters entered the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday, during the operation to retake Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

Militia fighters entered the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday, during the operation to retake Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

If ISIS were to make a similar move in Mosul while the PMU remain the only force standing to their west that raises the question how the US and the coalition would respond. For one the coalition does not want to work with the PMU and the PMU do not in any way want to be seen working with the Americans – since they oppose their presence in Iraq to begin. Simply bombing ISIS as they try to break through PMU lines to get back to Syria increases the chance that the US kills PMU through lack of coordination, like it did to at least 62 Syrian soldiers in the city of Deir Ezzor when they mistook them for ISIS militants in the same vicinity in September. This would likely inflame the PMU and could lead them to target American forces and interests in Iraq in retaliation, as they have already threatened to do.

As the battle for Mosul progresses and looks set to last at least another few weeks, if not months, the role of the PMU should be carefully observed given the important positions they are now beginning to occupy.

More information
Hauke ​​Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2015.

This entry was posted in English, International, Iraq.

7 Responses to Iraq’s notorious militia is setting up camp west of Mosul

  1. Comment from @naszezrodlo:

    Answer:
    For starters some of the sources:

  2. Eamon says:

    If you rely on Kenroth and Donatello Rovera of HRW and Kristian Benedict of Shamnesty for your proof you are laughable and amateurish. They are utterly discredited and their bias and sectarian agenda is common knowledge

    • First of all… we never used the word “proof”, but source. You are probably old enough to build your own opinion, which differs obvious from ours. People, who call others with a different opinion “laughable and amateurish”, discredit themselves.

      Let’s see… Western media or organizations are biased because they are propagandistic instruments of the US; regional media (for example “Sunnis in Mosul face torture by Popular Mobilization militias“, al Arabiya, 26.10.2016) are Sunni / Saudi / Qatar / whatever propaganda — right? In other words: If not the PMU itself say that they torture Sunni civilians than you will not accept it as legit. Is that what you are saying?

      Interestingly, nobody put the use of child soldiers and the abuse of Sunni civilians by the PMU into question, yet.

      • wiggum says:

        Wow, i sense a strange and strong bias here, looks like i will delete my bookmark of “offiziere.ch” !

        Yes, alarabiya.net is an arm of Saudi foreign policy, you cant den that and both, Amnesty International and especially Human Rights Watch have been criticized many times for taking huge sums of money from Saudi donors.

        And interestingly, i didnt see a report about the abuse of Alawite/Shiite civilians by Sunni militias or Jihadists yet…

        I cant take this site and its reporting serious any more, the bias and agenda is clearly visible. Goodby !

  3. Human Rights Organizations said that PMU recruited child soldiers. In detail it was Hashed al-Ashaeri [Tribal Mobilisation], who recruited them in refugee camps in North Iraq this summer. But Hashed al-Ashaeri is a Sunni PMU unit not a Shia. It was done by two tribal militia from Nineveh Plain. (“Iraq: Militias Recruiting Children“, Human Right Watch, 30.08.2016).

    • Juliane, thanks for your comment. We used the term “Shiite militia” because the PMU comprise mainly Shia militia men. In fact, violation of human rights have been done by perpetrators irrespective from their religious affiliations. Probably the use of the term “Shiite militia” gave a false impression and provoked critics that we were biased against Shiites. Consequently, we decided to remove the religious designation in the title and in the text.

      • Juliane says:

        It think the root of the Problem is that many (western) Media used the term “Shiite militia” especialy last year to show this PMU are loyal or supported by Iran and Iran has a bad Image in the West. So this term has a bad tast today. It`s correct that most groups in the PMU are Shiites. But most are not loyal to Iran. Most followed the call of GA Sistani in 2014 when Daesh threatened Baghdad, Najaf and Kabala. And the Shiism of Najaf is different to this from Iran.
        I don`t think you`re biased against Shiites. As I already said, I think the root of the problem is that the term “Shiite militis” has a bad tast in the West today. To the human rights violation, I hope there will be a similar investigation on Mosul as they did in Fallujah. The investigation in Fallujah was lead by the Prince of Jordania together with Officials from Anbar.

        The issus with this Suni Tribals especialy from Nineveh area and Anbar is, that there role in the uprise of Daesh in 2014 is not totaly clear until today. Just want to mention Mr. Atheel al-Nujaifi. But lets hope an Iraqi Court will finaly investigate this cases.

        I think a general problem we see actual when it comes on Reports from Iraq and much more from Syria is, that many opinions are colored by different players and only less ppl have neutral infos from the ground (I do not mean your report). To see that even Orgs. like HRW are not neutral in every case, gives cause for concern I think.
        At last quite possible that I am just a bit too sensitively in some Details.
        Keep up your good work

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