Iraqi tribes ready to join anti-ISIS volunteer forces, says PMU official
Haitham al-Mayahi, PMU’s director of the international relations office, talks about a new vision to create an all-inclusive forces to defeat ISIS
Haitham al-Mayahi, the U.S.-based director of the international relations office of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), told Al Arabiya News recently that 20 tribal sheikhs from the western Iraqi province of Anbar, who fought al-Qaeda in the last decade, are ready to join forces to defeat Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.
The Iran-backed PMU was formed from Shiite armed groups and volunteers after a fatwa (an Islamic religious edict) by the influential spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, calling 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 last June. Their power intensified after the Iraqi army then lost Anbar’s Ramadi in May.
While some PMU members were criticized for human rights violations after they took back the late President Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in April, they continue to be considered by observers as a necessary component for ISIS’s defeat in the city.
In an interview, the Washington-based Mayahi, who recently returned from two months in Iraq, discussed the future formation for a whole new PMU and a new vision to create an all-inclusive unit to defeat ISIS, pleading for U.S. arms.
Mayahi also warned that ISIS were eyeing an attack on the capital Baghdad, citing inside intelligence.
After outreaching to the tribal sheikhs, who expressed their wish to join the PMU, they and Mayahi sent a letter in early September to the PMU’s leader, as well as Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
The tribal leaders had fought in a period starting from 2006 in a coalition known as the Awakening. Together, they managed to defeat al-Qaeda in 2008.
While PMU includes other four brigades which are not Shiites - one Sunni, two Christian groups and a Yazidi - the members of the Awakening have insufficient weapons nor have the governmental approval to be part of the fight, as fears still linger on whether they should be included.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mistrusted the Awakening, fearing that the armed Sunnis could become a problem for his Shiite-dominated government after the defeat of al-Qaeda, leaving them marginalized.
Q: What were the fears from PMU regarding the Awakening? And how did the Awakening accept to be part of PMU. How did that happen?
It happened because I talked to the Awakening. They consider me an Iraqi who is educated and I am also American.
The Awakening had relations with the former American colonels and generals in Iraq, who actually created and established the movement with them, like the former U.S. Army Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Silverman, who is also a friend of mine as well. Silverman talked to them and told them that they should join the PMU. He is on our side, their side and the Iraqi side, he is not trying to create issues.
Q: So are you and Silverman considered as the pioneers or fathers of these ideas?
Yes, you can say so.
We had several meetings with the sheikhs. We asked each sheikh to provide 200 fighters but they were so cooperative, they said that we will provide thousands, but we insisted that we needed 200 fighters each.
They also nominated a man named Tariq al-Assal. Al-Assal was the head of the police department of Anbar, he fought al-Qaeda, he knows the city very well, he was in our meeting. He was very excited to lead the mission of PMU for Anbar. They are looking forward to fight.
Now, I am trying to convince PMU of accepting the idea, and we are working on it.
Q: Why do you think it needs a lot of convincing, what are their fears?
There are fears from both sides. At the time of the Awakening, they actually lost a lot, they lost their weapons, money to get rid of al-Qaeda, now the fear of the Iraqi government is how [they can] start trusting those people, they are Sunni and so is ISIS.
The Iraqi government believes that there is no ISIS in the northern or southern city of Iraq, only in Mosul or Anbar, which are Sunni areas.
However, I believe the Awakening members are different since they fought against al-Qaeda. And what I like about their sheikhs is that they are all liberal, modern and not Islamists; they are against Islamists and they are willing to work with any open-minded liberal Iraqi to get their land [back].
The Sunnis from Anbar who fought ISIS, despite their training, have failed. We lost Ramadi and other important areas in Anbar such as al-Saqlawiya and Jisr al-Yabani.
Most of those Awakening members are very liberal, they are not going to be affiliated with ISIS at all. Now [with] Abadi in office, no one has opened the door between the government, the Awakening and PMU, this is the first time we are doing this and it is moving forward.
They are well-trained and it is their land, so they just need weapons.
Q: PM Abadi previously said in April that PMU will not join the in the retaking of Mosul, why is that? Do you think this will change?
First [of all,] I never heard Abadi say this, but heard [former governor of Mosul Atheel] al-Nujaifi saying it instead of the prime minister. And this was during the time when the idea of creating a Republican Guard inside Mosul to fight ISIS was on the table. But this will not work [due political wrangling and derailment] and won’t be successful.
There will never be liberation of Mosul or Anbar without the PMU, when you have people who are ready to die like ISIS, you should have people who are also ready to die as well, and with faith, like the PMU [units] who believe in [Ayatollah Sistani’s] fatwa.
It is a faith war now. Not like a soldier from the ministry of defense, who is thinking about his family or his salary at the end of the month. It is not going to work this way.
And PMU, I am not talking about Shiite only, I wish [that the] PMU [would be] half and half.
Q: Let’s talk numbers. What is the number of PMU forces? And how can we know the number of minorities such as Sunnis, Yazidis and Christians in the PMU right now?
It is not me or anyone else that can estimate the number of PMU right now, simply because they are volunteers who responded to a fatwa.
I even wanted the government to find out how many volunteers who have already joined, they do not have a clue of how many people we have so far.
For Yazidis, we have a small brigade called the Sinjar Brigade, and they are part of the Imam Ali Brigade. The Imam Ali brigade is considered the third biggest brigade in the PMU.
We have two Christian brigades, Babilyoun (Babylonians) and Isa Roh Allah (Jesus the spirit of God). And we have Tha’r al-Anbiya’ (Vengeance of the Prophets) from Mosul.
Q: There were Shiite factions that were part of the PMU used to fight the U.S., so how do you expect the U.S. to accept the PMU?
As I mentioned in the beginning Jaish al-Mahdi (a militia created by the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and disbanded in 2008) fought the U.S. for a long time, that was when the U.S. was an occupying power, when they were colonizing Iraq, when they were invading Iraq, but now after they left Iraq, I don’t think they consider them as an enemy, no they are to fight with them against ISIS.
For example Muqtada al-Sadr, I remember in one of his statements he said [that] when the United States leaves Iraq we will consider them as a diplomatic mission inside our country and we will collaborate with them.
Not anybody from the PMU, not the [other Shiite armed groups] Assa’ib al-Haq, Saraya al-Sallam, or Hezbollah want to see U.S. soldiers in our land because they believe in one thing, we have soldiers, but we need weapons, that’s the only thing we need now.
We need more training, arms and we can defeat ISIS just like we did in Tikrit.
They are fighting ISIS to protect not only Iraq but [other] neighboring countries [too], because if ISIS controls Iraq and occupies Iraq, they will not stop there but they will move forward and just attack Kuwait, Saudi, and any country that has oil.
If we are smart enough as an Arab nation, let’s just see how we could provide weapons and training and everything else.
Q: Russia is looking at creating a “framework” to fight ISIS and Baghdad is engaged in intelligence and security cooperation with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from the ISIS militant group. Is Russia ahead of the U.S. in the fight to combat ISIS?
Russia always tries to wield its influence like [it did in] the Cold War, although now they are using arms and military [forces] in Syria, and Russia sent some of its troops to Syria. And Russia is going to send some weapons to Iraq.
But why doesn’t the U.S. move forward? However, as long as Russia will interfere, the U.S. will act, they are not going to wait for Russia to gain more influence in the region.
Q: Do you think Russia has more of a sense of urgency?
I believe Russia understands politics in the region more than the United States, they know what is going in the region, I believe they have the weapons and the intelligence to wield such influence.
But the U.S. also has advisors in Iraq, we can do a lot as Americans and as Iraqis, I do not want Iraq to go one side because Russia is connected with Iran one hundred percent and I do not want to see that, they have the same agenda, the same mentality.
Yesterday in [the northern city of Baiji], we received a strong attack coming from ISIS, making us lose some territory, but we won in the same time, it is like a game. If we all attack, the U.S. army, coalition, and the PMU, [then] we will get our land probably in a week or so. Derailing it mean we are losing more money, people, land, and it is not going to work this way.
Q: When do you think the operation to liberate Anbar, Mosul will start?
I think when we have the final decision between PMU and the U.S.-led coalition and others. There is a lot of misunderstanding and misconception, I am trying to build a bridge between them.
Q: Can you tell me about PMU’s sources of funding?
The funding comes from the Iraqi government as PMU is part of the interior ministry. But the weapons Iran is providing it with no charge at the same time. Also not to forget most of the PMU groups such as Assai’b al-Haq have some major source of funding coming from the businesses they own for years now.
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