Concerns are growing amongst Iraqi Kurdish officials over the presence of Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries in Northern Iraq where many territories remain controlled by the Islamic State.
The paramilitaries, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or Units (PMF/PMUs), operating in Sinjar have declared they will seek to “control the remaining areas still held by ISIS” and have rejected calls from Kurdish leaders to not interfere with the efforts of Iraqi forces.
Iraqi MP Dr. Beriwan Khailany of the Kurdish Democratic Party, who campaigned for an independent Kurdistan, expressed concern over a potential conflict over the future control of the region once the Islamic State are defeated.
“They are backing up the Iraqi military right now,” Khailany told the Kurdish outlet Rudaw. “But after ISIS it’s not clear what will happen [to] them: Will they become a full part of the Iraqi military or remain a separate force?”
Khailany also contended that the current objectives of Kurdish forces to expel ISIS from the region would be simplified if the PMF were not involved.
“If you have only normal military forces just like any other country that would be far better, with all the weapons in the right hands, under the Ministry of Defense rather than in the hands of militias,” she said.
Although not officially part of the Iraqi military, the PMF are sanctioned by the Iraqi government and receive direction from Iraqi Special Operation Forces. The PMF are also participating in the fight against ISIS in other regions, such as Mosul and Fallujah.
However, the counterinsurgent organization, which is composed of over 100,000 people across 40 separate militias, remains non-compliant with Iraqi law and has been accused of multiple human rights violations. Furthermore, the group also poses a threat to U.S. allies, given its strong ties with Iran and previous threats to kill US troops.
Multiple members of the Peshmerga, the military of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, have raised concerns over a possible attack from the PMF following the defeat of ISIS. In February, Kurdish military commander Colonel Sirwan Muhammad told Rudaw he had reason to “believe that they have come here to fight the Peshmerga [Kurdish military forces] when ISIS are gone.”
Mahmoud Sangawi, a senior official for Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) claimed last August that the PMF “are currently making plans on how to attack us after [ISIS’s defeat].” The warnings come despite recent legislation in the Iraqi parliament to fully integrate the Hashd into the Iraqi military.
Worries over the future of the PMF are amplified by plans from the Kurdistan Regional Government to invoke Article 140, which would give Kurds the right to determine whether they become an independent region from Iraq via a referendum. Officials fear that, should the PMF remain in the region, they could block this process by challenging the KRG’s authority.