Incorporating Iraqi Sunnis in the hard-hitting mainly Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) fighting ISIS militants is still falling short of what the minority sect is striving for, a parliamentarian has said.
This sentiment has left some recently liberated areas in Iraq unprotected due to the shortage of Sunni forces needed, he added.
The PMU were formed soon after ISIS’s shock grab of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014. While the units have started to recruit Sunnis, more are needed to help secure areas recaptured from the militants.
Mohammed Karbouli, a member of the Iraqi Security and Defense parliamentary committee, dismissed a recent report saying that 40,000 Sunnis were given the green light to join PMU, describing Sunnis as feeling continuously excluded.
Instead, the lawmaker said the reality is a far cry from the reported figure, putting the current total number of Sunni volunteers at merely 16,000 whereas Shiites in the PMU account for as much as 120,000 fighters.
“What we have – those who are receiving salaries – is a number that does not exceed 16,000 for all of the Sunni provinces,” Karbouli told Al Arabiya News.
Of the 16,000 figure, the western province of Anbar takes the lion’s share of 9,000 volunteer fighters, he said.
‘Willing to die’ fighters
The PMU was initially made up of Shiite armed groups and volunteers after a fatwa (an Islamic religious edict) by influential spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Iraqis to fight ISIS.
Since then, the PMU’s reputation for its hard-hitting and “willing to die” fighters emerged after Iraq’s army abandoned the country’s second largest city of Mosul in June 2014. Their power intensified after the Iraqi army then lost Anbar’s Ramadi in May last year.
The Iraqi parliament approved a draft law last year to create a National Guard. It was touted, at least by Sunni lawmakers, as the best way to incorporate Sunni fighters. But due to political wrangling with Shiite lawmakers, the Sunnis opted to arm and funnel support to their sect’s militias. This brought the U.S.-backed plan - to bring together Iraq’s fractured sectarian tribal forces fighting ISIS under government supervision - to a complete halt.
However, with the creation of Anbar’s PMU headed by Lieutenant General Rashid Flayeh, hopes were renewed to create a more diversified PMU, inclusive of more Sunnis to finally create a National Guard.
The urgency to include more Sunnis was also needed after reportedly violent acts were committed by Shiite PMU fighters in liberated Sunni territories as a means of revenge.
The revenge acts emanated from many Shiites’ belief that ISIS was only able to thrive in Sunni-dominated areas, putting the blame on the sect for allowing these militants to infiltrate the country.
This mistrust was what further stopped the further incorporation of Sunni fighters who are ready to join the PMU.
“There is a lack of trust regarding the individuals who will be incorporated,” Yassir al-Fahdawi, field and security commander in Anbar, told Al Arabiya News.
Fahdawi, who put the number of PMU forces in Anbar province at 7,000, said “thousands are ready to join.”
“There is overt public procrastination on this issue, this is what it is delaying it. If there was an intention to get things moving, their number would have reached 50,000,” he added.
Before the 2015 budget went to effect, it was agreed that the PMU will consist of 70,000 Shiites and 50,000 Sunni fighters.
“This is what was agreed on. The PMU was the nucleus to create the National Guard,” he said. “But now, we haven’t reached 50,000 fighters or created any National Guard.”
Karbouli, who was with the parliament’s head in a city in Anbar called Haditha noticed on Saturday “an issue with the areas recently liberated from the terrorists, that there are no forces who are in charge of its protection.”
Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdulwahab Sarhan al-Dulaimi, head of the Anbar Tribes Council Against Terrorism, who gave a slightly different figure for Sunni PMU members hailing from the western province, believes there is no shortage of human resources to bring in more Sunni fighters.
“The number of the fighters only in Anbar are 8,000,” he said. “And we have more than 10,000 fighters [in Anbar] who are currently ready to join this organization,” he added.
Sheikh Dulaimi said the Baghdad government’s financial standing is poor on the backdrop of the falling oil prices, Iraq’s main export income.
“Until now, we never received support from any authority, except for the Prime Minister’s office for Sunni provinces. We have not received any foreign financing, whether from Iran or any other Arab country,” he said, in reference to the Shiite division of the PMU receiving financial support from the government, Iran and their religious institutions.
Some see Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi incapable of controlling the PMU, a force which has grown immensely.
“Abadi wishes to continue with his reforms but there are constraints, which weaken him especially when he gives promises he can’t deliver,” the president of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, Ghassan Attiyah, told Al Arabiya News.
While the PMU is part of the interior ministry and gets much of its funding from there, Attiyah says “it is being financed without authorization from the Parliament. He [Abadi] agreed to form the National Guard, but he could not and he won’t. So he thought he’d allow Sunnis to join the PMU.”
With a prime minister with seemingly not much clout, many in Iraq feel the need to take matters into their own hands.
“There are more than 2,200 fighters from Anbar tribes who are fighting without being ordered to, or receiving a salary for more than 4-6 months,” Karbouli said. “But they want to fight, as they have to defend their homes and protect their people.”