The global coronavirus pandemic has provided the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), known also as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, with an opportunity to revive its reputation and to augment its propaganda campaign.
Iraq’s poor health care infrastructure is unable to cope, and the PMU’s involvement in the health sector during the pandemic will further enable the group to consolidate its grip on the state.
Since May, coronavirus cases have surged in Iraq, increasing by 600 percent, according to The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In the second week of August there were more than 157,000 confirmed cases in Iraq, Middle East Business Intelligence reported.
The PMU has several names for its campaign against COVID-19, including kabeh al-jai’ha, or curb the pandemic, and hamla al-aaa’I, or the awareness campaign. These slogans, which are highly visible on Iraqi Shia political platforms and the PMU’s websites including Hashd.net and Qanat al-Qadeer, which is affiliated to Badr organization, have been used as a façade for an increasingly politicalized and fragmented PMU.
However, ordinary Iraqis and activists are mobilizing to combat the pandemic; volunteers, students and local business have stepped in to help their communities in the face of the increasing infections across the country. The activists need profound support from the Iraqi state and international organizations in order to sustain their activities, and reduce the PMU’s politicalized campaigns
PMU and COVID-19
Iraq was applauded in the early days of the pandemic as it had relatively low numbers of cases, but allegedly Iraqi authorities were not transparent with their official case numbers, according to a Reuters Report. From June onward, the number of infections and fatalities spiralled out of control, high profile figures such as parliamentarians, military commanders, for example General Murad al-Rubaie, and the most popular Iraqi football icon Ahmed Radhi died.
Iraq’s inept state institutions, poor medical facilities and management, the drop of oil prices, and the increasing scale of the pandemic in Iraq facilitated the PMU’s ability to face the pandemic where it would come to show itself as an indispensable actor against an invisible enemy.
The PMU’s media outlets began to distribute information about the support it has provided to those who are infected as well as repairing ambulances, assisting burials, creating isolation facilities and sterilizing public places. The PMU also enforced a curfew in the areas it controls. It has built field hospitals in several places such as Baghdad, Dhi Qar, Muthana, Babel, Salahuddin and Karbala. The hospital in Karbala was named the Martyr Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis Hospital, after the deputy chairman of the PMU who was killed by a US airstrike on January 3. The hospitals show the PMU’s insignia and images of al-Muhandis.
The PMU’s dozens of directorates have specialized tasks, and two of them are responsible for the anti-coronavirus campaign: the directorate of medical treatment and the directorate of logistics. The PMU deployed between 3,000 and 5,000 personnel for the campaign.
However, the PMU’s anti-COVID-19 campaign is neither coherent nor coordinated between all the militias. Reflective of the political divisions between the PMU, some militias affiliated with certain political parties have their own campaigns. For example, Badr and Kata’ib Hezbollah have separate anti-pandemic campaigns and display their own flags and insignia during their activities.
The PMU utilize media and social media effectively to highlight its activities, and there have been dozens of reports on the organization’s efforts to mitigate the pandemic.
The PMU’s impunity
Since October 2019, there have been ongoing protests, and protesters demonstrated resentment toward the government and pro-Iran factions in Iraq.
The PMU’s anti-COVID-19 campaign aims to restore their tarnished reputation in the wake of pro-Iran militias’ attacks against and assassinations of protesters, activists, journalists and scholars. Amnesty International stated that between October 2019 and February 2020, more than 600 protesters were killed. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights stated that by the mid-March, there had been 53 assassination attempts on protesters, 22 were killed, and 75 were kidnapped. The latest prominent expert who was assassinated was Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi. Many of the targeted scholars, journalists and activists, including the latter, criticised pro-Iran militias.
Other past issues that have damaged the reputation of the PMU is their history of meddling in infrastructure projects. The PMU has monopolized many infrastructure projects by controlling the allocation of the contracts and wielding its influence on the provincial councils. The projects include building dams, bridges and public buildings. According to a report by Clingendael: Netherlands Institute of International Relations, militias within the PMU take lucrative cuts from many reconstruction projects and the militias directly, and in some cases as intermediaries, take these projects. A firm that answers to the PMU is Khatam al-Anbiya, which facilitates projects for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Iraqi anti-COVID-19 mobilization
The PMU received ample media coverage and resources, one source of which is from the Iraqi state, whereas the Iraqi civil societies, activists, human rights organizations and traders’ efforts to combat COVID-19 have not been adequately supported. Where the latter group has no political ambitions, their efforts must be supported further.
Iraqi President Dr. Barham Salih on March 26 called on unions, civil societies, and businessmen to engage in the fight against the pandemic, and despite this, the PMU efforts continue to receive resources.
According to an al-Monitor report, Iraqi activists and traders have been active in combating the pandemic. For example, an Iraqi special medical unit, which has been set up by the Iraqi Students Union, is examining people. Traders donated cash to their communities; in Najaf, traders donated nearly $300,000.
Ordinary citizens, including generator owners and activists, have mobilized and provided support for their communities. A group of young volunteers provided boxes of vegetables to 7,000 families in Diwaniya. Another young volunteer group in Anbar raised funds for poor families, and distributed 1,000 masks, 400 boxes of sanitizers and 250 boxes of gloves to their community. Many other volunteer activities across the country have been reported on by United Nations Iraq.
In August the World Health Organization (WHO) and Iraq’s health ministry kicked off an awareness campaign known as Your Health is Important. The campaign will be supported by 650 community volunteers and the United Iraqi Medical Society. These activities and campaigns demonstrate that, unlike the PMU that seeks political leverage, the efforts of selfless Iraqis need to be supported.
Created in June 2014, Hashd al-Shaabi is an umbrella for the majority of non-monolithic Shia militias, which are controlled by pro-Iran militias. The PMU includes dozens of militias and half of them existed before the creation of this umbrella. It has systematically pursued the infiltration of the state structure including national, regional and local projects that are assigned for the public services. The Shia political factions – such as Badr Organization, al-Sadiqoun bloc that is the political wing of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Tajamu’ al-Mujtama al-Mustaqil that is the political wing of Kata’ib Hezbollah – have militias loyal to them within the PMU. Despite the competition between the pro-Iran Shia political armed factions, they created Fatah alliance and gained 48 seats in Iraq’s Council of Representatives during the parliamentary elections in 2018, including Badr’s 22 seats, al-Sadiqoun’s 15, and Kata’ib Hezbollah’s one seat. Due to the Iraqi Security Forces’ meltdown in the face of the Islamic State in 2014, the PMU played a key role in pushing back the Islamic State. However, the pro-Iran militias have committed human rights violations against Iraqis, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, and they have also challenged the Iraqi state.