US should train Iraqi army not proxy militias

Position of US on Popular Mobilisation Forces has been most puzzling to Arab Gulf leaders as well as political observ­ers.

Riad Kahwaji

Mobilisation Forces marching in Baghdad

The Iraqi Shia militia known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) has been a controversial entity that has taken over the role of Iraqi armed forces in defending the country against foreign and domestic threats.

The Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi repeatedly praised the PMF and underlined its important role in combating Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists.

However, Iraqi Sunni leaders condemned the PMF as a sectarian militia that committed sectarian and ethnic cleansing in the ter­ritories that were occupied by ISIS gunmen before they were pushed out in joint assaults by the PMF, Iraqi troops and the warplanes of the US-led international alliance.

Human rights groups have quoted Sunni residents in Ramadi talking about PMF reprisal attacks on neighbourhoods and terroris­ing civilians to force them out of their homes. Iraqi government officials promised to investigate the reports but are yet to release any clear findings.

The PMF was formed shortly after ISIS made a huge thrust into Iraqi territory in the summer of 2014, occupying large sections of the country.

Arab Gulf officials supported Iraqi Sunni officials in branding the PMF as an Iranian proxy group aiming to drive the Sunni commu­nity from oil-rich areas and from Baghdad and its peripheries.

The US position on the PMF has been most puzzling to Arab Gulf leaders as well as political observ­ers.

Washington has been surprising­ly tolerant of seeing US-supplied weapons and vehicles operated by the PMF, in clear violation of US trade and export rules that forbid the use of any American-supplied hardware by any party other than the intended end-user, which in this case is the Iraqi armed forces.

Arms dealers who had shipped ammunition and weapons from the United States and other coun­tries to Iraq spoke of shipments being confiscated by the PMF at Baghdad International Airport within the sight of Iraqi officials and with the knowledge of US dip­lomats at the embassy in Iraq.

US warplanes and Special Forces have provided air and ground sup­port for PMF units in assaults on ISIS positions on various occasions despite reports of sectarian cleans­ing committed by the militias. The Iraqi government has been very slow in adhering to Washington demands to arm and train Sunni tribal fighters to take on ISIS in predominantly Sunni areas of the country.

The result has been a surge in Tehran’s influence in Iraq via the rise and empowerment of the PMF at the expense of all other regional and international players, includ­ing the United States.

This brings into question Wash­ington’s policies in the Middle East, especially after the signing of the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Arab Gulf states are very suspicious of the agreement and what Iran could get out of it and whether its gains would be at the expense of the Arabs. What they see in Iraq reinforces their fears.

The Obama administration seems to have strayed far in its ambiguous stance towards the PMF to an extent it is allowing the militias to get away with violat­ing US defence export rules under the pretext of having an effective fighting force against ISIS.

It would have made much more sense for Washington to work on training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces in which the United States has invested billions of dollars to ensure Iraq will have a national army instead of Iranian-proxy militias that serve Tehran’s agenda at the expense of Iraqi as well as Arab and even Western interests.

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