Thousands of Iraqi paramilitary fighters, including powerful Iran-backed factions, marched at a military base in eastern Iraq on Saturday showcasing tanks and rocket launchers in their biggest formal parade to date.
The event, attended by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, marked seven years since the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) were formed to fight the Sunni ISIS.
“I esteem your sacrifices, and the sacrifices of the Iraqi armed forces” in fighting ISIS, Kadhimi said, warning against any “sedition” within the PMU, but without elaborating.
The PMU’s establishment created a state-sanctioned umbrella organization of mostly Shiite militias backed by Iran.
The Iran-aligned factions, which are the most powerful in the PMU, have since ISIS’s defeat in 2017 expanded their military, political and economic power and attacked bases housing the 2,500 remaining US forces in Iraq.
They have allies in parliament and government and a grip over some state bodies, including security institutions.
Those factions are also accused of killing protesters who took to the streets in late 2019 demanding the removal of Iraq’s ruling elite. The groups deny involvement in activist killings.
Kadhimi, a US-friendly interim premier, has tried to crack down on the most powerful Iran-backed factions but without success because of their military strength and political influence.
The membership of Iran-aligned groups in the PMU has made it difficult for Kadhimi and state security forces to check the power of the militias, since they are effectively part of the state itself.
On Saturday Kadhimi watched, flanked by militia commanders while hundreds of armored vehicles drove past a banner of the late PMU military chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iran-backed commander who was killed in a US drone strike last year.
The parade, a demonstration of military might, took place at a base once occupied by US troops near the border with Iran.
The PMU was formed in 2014 after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS, which had taken over a third of Iraq.