Thousands of pro-Iranian paramilitary fighters 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 Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were formed to fight the extremist Islamic State (ISIS) group.

“I esteem your sacrifices, and the sacrifices of the Iraqi armed forces” in fighting Islamic State, Kadhimi said, warning against any “sedition” within the PMF, but without elaborating.

The event and Kadhimi’s attendance marked the prime minister’s concession to the power of the PMF. Kadhimi was initially reported to being reluctant to grant permission to the parade as it illustrated the growing influence of pro-Iran fractions at the expense of state institutions.

The PMF’s establishment created a state-sanctioned umbrella organisation of mostly Shia militias backed by Iran.

The Iran-aligned factions, which are the most powerful in the PMF, have since Islamic State’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.

There were recent signs of a showdown between the paramilitary force and the government, following the arrest of PMF commander Qassim Musleh last month on terrorism charges. Musleh was later released, a move that embarrassed Iraq’s leadership and laid bare the limits of the government’s ability to bring militia leaders to account.

The membership of Iran-aligned groups in the PMF has made it difficult for Kadhimi and state security forces to check the power of the militias, since they are formally part of the state itself.

Conspicuously absent from the parade were militias affiliated with firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and al-Sistani, a sign of deepening divisions within the PMF and dissatisfaction with the growing influence of Iran-backed groups.

On Saturday Kadhimi watched, flanked by militia commanders while hundreds of armoured vehicles drove past a banner of the PMF 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 PMF was formed in 2014 after Iraq’s top Shiacleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS, which had taken over a third of Iraq. Pro-Iran groups seized the opportunity to organise an Iraqi force shaped along the lines of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Source » thearabweekly