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Risk for Iraq in militia move

FILE – In this Tuesday, July 18, 2017 file photo, Suspected Islamic State members sit inside a small room in a prison south of Mosul, Iraq. A leading international human rights organization is criticizing the Iraqi government for holding thousands of prisoners, including children, in degrading and “inhuman” conditions. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen, File)

BAGHDAD, July 4, (AP): The Iraqi government’s move this week to place Iranian-backed militias under the command of the armed forces is a political gamble by a prime minister increasingly caught in the middle of a dangerous rivalry between Iran and the US, the two main power brokers in Iraq.

Facing pressure from the US to curb the militias, the move allows Prime Minister Adel Abdul- Mahdi to demonstrate a tough stance ahead of a planned visit to Washington, expected to take place in the coming weeks. It is unlikely, though, that he would be able to rein in the powerful Iran-supported militias, and he risks coming off as a weak and ineffective leader if he doesn’t.

Besides having built credibility as an effective force against the Islamic State group, the mainly Shiite militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are a significant political force, with government ministers and 48 seats in the 329-member parliament.

The PMF “is among the parties that achieved victory for Iraq against (the Islamic State group), liberating Mosul and restoring security to the country. The time has come to organize their status in a legal way … meaning no weapons outside the framework of the state,” Abdul-Mahdi told reporters at a weekly news conference Tuesday.

That’s a tough sell in a country awash with arms and militias, many of which operate outside the state’s control. The leaders of some of the larger militias, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr and the Peace Brigades, welcomed the decision, calling it a step in the right direction. But one militia leader said his group has secret offices that they will not close, calling Abdul-Mahdi’s decision a “US directive”.

Speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, he said the prime minister and the Americans “are dreaming” if they think they can implement the decision. The Hezbollah Brigades, one of the largest militias with close ties to Iran, indirectly criticized the order in a statement Thursday. It said the government’s foremost responsibility is to remove what it described as US occupation forces and their business affiliates from Iraq, saying they constitute “a major threat” to security. It did not address whether the group would abide by Abdul-Mahdi’s orders. The US maintains military bases and more than 5,000 troops in Iraq.

The PMF emerged following a call in the summer of 2014 by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for volunteers after Islamic State militants overran nearly a third of Iraq, including the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest. Iraq’s military and security forces collapsed in the face of the onslaught.

Tens of thousands heeded the cleric’s call, enlisting in multiple militia factions, many of which had existed for years and even fought American forces in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Sanctioned by the Iraqi government but dominated by Shiite groups with close ties to Iran, the militias played a key role in the war against IS and the protection of Shiite shrines in Iraq.

They came out of the war with the image of an almost holy force defending Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority. That has helped enshrine the militias as a major political and paramilitary player in post-IS Iraq, despite US suggestions that they should be disbanded after IS was driven from the country. Militia factions armed with tanks and heavy weapons are present in almost every Iraqi province, in many cases deeply embedded in local governance and rivaling state institutions. Together, they are believed to number more than 140,000 fighters.

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