Iraq is about to approve a budget that allocates $2.8 billion to the Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), marking an increase of $600 million from the previous budget in 2021.
The additional government money will allow PMUs, of which pro-Tehran Kataeb Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl Alhaq (also known as the Khazali Network) and the Al Ashtar Brigades are on the United States’ list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations, to nearly double their ranks from 122,000 to a staggering 238,000.
The increase in funding and personnel is inexplicable, given that the PMUs were formed to eradicate ISIS, which is now suppressed. With an annual deficit close to $50 billion and with Baghdad raising taxes to make ends meet, it is even more puzzling that Iraq is still funding a paramilitary force, whose budget equals 40 percent of the Iraqi defence ministry and whose size is bigger than regular armies of neighbouring countries, such as Jordan and Kuwait.
So, why is cash-strapped Iraq feeding organisations that are under US sanctions? The answer is two-fold.
First, after the meltdown of the national army to ISIS in Mosul in 2014, Iraqi military culture became infested with corruption, with officers buying their positions and using units “as businesses with reliable revenues,” according to one analysis at the time.
For instance, officers kept news of broken-down vehicles quiet to continue receiving money for fuel. They taxed the salaries of soldiers, many of whom served from the comfort of their living rooms. In fact, Iraq found on its payroll as many as 50,000 “ghost soldiers” and 300,000 “ghost employees,” the equivalent of ten percent of its public sector workforce.
The legacy of fictitious soldiers and employees suggests that the new PMU personnel could essentially be “ghost militiamen,” and would help explain the PMU’s role in money laundering on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Salaries of PMU fighters and the bureaucracy’s ghost employees are in Iraqi dinars. IRGC and its Iraqi proteges convert this cash into US dollars at small Iraqi banks and exchange shops; dollars are in short supply inside Iran due to Washington’s sanctions. Iraqi currency shops then exchange their dinars for dollars at the daily auction of the Iraqi Central Bank, which spends an average of $250 million in cash each day.
Thus, despite Baghdad’s surplus of over $29 billion in oil revenue, the Iraqi dinar is continuously fighting depreciation against the US dollar, and most of this money likely finds its way to Iran.
The second reason why Tehran is pushing Baghdad to fund PMUs is that out of 67 battalions (each battalion being its own militia), 43 are loyal to Iran’s Islamist regime and help Tehran crush peaceful protests with extreme violence. Iran loyalists in Iraq are believed to have attempted to kill former Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and to have assassinated anti-Iran activists.
Tehran’s Iraqi loyalists have also been involved in kidnapping for ransom and forging property deeds. The PMUs are also likely involved with their sister militias in Lebanon and Syria in the trade of Captagon, a cheap narcotic with enormous profits.
Just as Lebanese Hezbollah has acquired vast tracts of land and clashed with non-Shia Lebanese over real estate, so Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah uses property to solidify its position. Last month, Kataeb Hezbollah engaged in a shoot-out with Iraqi police who had responded to a call from a landowner in Albouaythah, south of Baghdad.
The landowner was farming when the militia tried to stop him, falsely claiming ownership of the parcel. Kataeb Hezbollah even claimed to have disarmed Sunni Iraqis, allegedly ISIS militants, for trafficking narcotics in the area.
Police eventually managed to surround the militiamen and demand their surrender. Phones started ringing and Kataeb Hezbollah were released without charges or arrests, despite reports that the clash had resulted in the death of two police officers.
Angered that federal police disrupted the operation, the pro-Iran militia People of the Cave accused Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammed Shia Al Sudani of “following the whims of the Jews, defending them and offering them services.” The militia added that “whoever believes in the guardianship of the Commander Imam,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, “should go by the wishes of the commander and expel Americans from Iraq.”
The escalation against Sudani was likely prompted by the prime minister’s refusal to side with the pro-Iran militia in its stand-off in Albouaythah. The militias have often used this region to store arms and launch Katyusha rockets into the Green Zone, the government’s fortified area in Baghdad.
Washington understands that PMUs undermine the Iraqi state. US Ambassador in Baghdad Alina Romanowski said as much in an interview last month, prompting Kataeb Hezbollah to respond by accusing Al Sudani of employing aides who are puppets of Washington. The comment was seen as a swipe at Interior Minister Abdul Amir Al Shammari, a career military man known for clashing with militias to impose law, order and state sovereignty.
But the fact that militias and other Iranian allies saw their earmarks increased in the latest Iraqi budget suggests that these groups are gaining influence. America must enable its Iraqi allies to stand up to Tehran’s militias and stop their corruption and expansion.
Source » thearabweekly