The on-going battle of Ramadi has shifted the conversation in Iraq. Despite the specifics of the battle, the perception by Iraqi public opinion of the battle has is that the Iraqi Army is back in the swing of things. This opens up an opportunity for the governments of PM Abadi and the United States to apply leverage against the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in such a way as to mold them into a smaller, pro-government force.
On paper, the PMUs are supposed to receive about 1 billion USD in the 2016 budget. That is unlikely to pan out. The shortfall is not going to be compensated with Iranian money, given that Iran has assigned the bulk of its available resources to the Syrian front per its agreement with Russia.
The lack of money, as well as documented abuses against Sunni civilians by some of the pro-Iran PMUs, may lend itself to a gradual eclipse of the latter forces should the initiative be spearheaded by Abadi with American prodding.
The Battle of Ramadi
There are several problems with how the battles have unfolded. To begin with, the brunt of the fighting was conducted by the Counter-Terrorism Forces (CTFs), which have been consistently used as infantry over the past two years contrary to their training and mission. The liberation of the fully-destroyed government complex in the city was not a victory for the Iraqi Army per se. Meanwhile, the CTFs have been depleted and exhausted.
On the other hand, the battle may worked to the Islamic State’s strategic objectives. Surely, losing Ramadi may look bad in a symbolic sense to the rank and file of the jihadists and their sympathizers, an issue addressed in ‘Caliph’ Al-Baghdadi’s latest audio speech. However, the strategists of the IS may have achieved the objective of tying-up the attention of the Baghdad’s best troops, as well as US air support, in a 3 month effort to take back a city that wasn’t that strategically important to IS as we think it is.
The jihadists did not fight a pitched battle in Ramadi. They employed the same diversionary and depletion tactics that they had used in Tikrit and Beiji. Over the last month, the most credible report of their numbers in Ramadi ranged between 300-600 fighters (the highest estimate had them at 1,500). Compare that to the 600 strikes or so conducted by Allied warplanes and drones on this front, plus the +12k Iraqi troops devoted to encircling the city. The disparity of effort and resources was a positive advantage for the jihadists.
The Battle of Ramadi afforded the IS time to operate and prepare elsewhere. In the overall assessment, I do not see how their ability to mount future operations—such as that which led to Ramadi’s fall last May—were seriously impeded.
The PMUs on the Sidelines
The most positive element of the Battle of Ramadi was that the PMUs could not claim credit for it, thanks to US efforts to sideline them. The modest victory there though has had an oversized effect on Iraqi public morale. Many Iraqis seem to embrace what happened in Ramadi partly because the PMUs were not involved, chalking up this achievement to the Iraqi Army, which has returned in the popular mind as a national symbol.
It is curious that the fate of Ramadi was being determined at the same time as the PMUs seemingly got what they wanted from the 2016 budget that was passed into law by parliament two weeks ago. The leadership of the PMUs had leveraged their newfound political clout to assign about 1 billion USD for them in 2016. But the details and the wording of the budget may work out against them.
Here are the stand-out features of Articles 39 through 41 of the 2016 budget:
-3 percent of salaries, pensions and perks are to be earmarked for the PMUs and the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), with 60 percent of that going to PMUs and 40 percent going to IDPs. That’s approximately 3 percent of 49 billion USD, which tallies up to around 900 million USD for the PMUs.
-An additional 3 percent was earmarked for the PMUs and IDPs from other expenditures of the state such as services, materiel, maintenance … etc. to be divided equally between the PMUs and IDPs.
-30 percent of the PMUs are supposed to be recruited from among Sunnis (this effectively does away, or so it would seem, with the legislation for a separate ‘Sunni’ National Guard).
-The “donations” to the PMUs are supposed to be deposited in a bank account controlled by the Prime Minister. It is my assessment that the word “donations” here means all the monies assigned to the PMUs.
Iraq’s 2016 budget is essentially “pie in the sky”. It is highly unlikely that Iraq would earn or be able to borrow the funds described in it. Consequently there will far less money available to the PMUs. I predict that they will end up getting less than 250 million USD over the course of 2016, even less than what they got in 2015.
Iran neither has the money nor the inclination to keep funding the various PMUs beholden to it. The Iranians are now fixated on the Syrian front, so much so that they have deployed some Iraqi PMUs to the Aleppo front and elsewhere in Syria, pulling them out from the Iraqi battlefield. This reallocation seems to be a manifestation of the deal they had cut with the Russian four months ago, according to Iraqi sources familiar with Gen. Suleimani’s strategy. (Suleimani has logged plenty of time in Syria recently as opposed to Iraq)
The pro-Iran PMUs believed that the shortfall would be compensated by their ‘win’ in the 2016 budget. But that ‘win’ is merely an illusion. Firstly, the money that may actually materialize is far less, and a big chunk of it is supposed to bankroll Sunni troops. Secondly, the pro-Iran PMUs will be competition with other PMUs that answer to Sistani, Sadr and Hakim for the same funds. Thirdly, Abadi gets to write the checks, and he may well prioritize IDPs for whatever funds become available.
Given the current atmospherics of Iraqi public opinion and its confidence in the Iraqi Army post-Ramadi, Abadi may be emboldened to starve out the pro-Iran PMUs. The PMUs may be relegated in 2016 to an effective strength of two auxiliary divisions (40,000 troops) with about half of those being Sunni Arabs. The pro-Najaf PMUs may constitute the bulk of the remaining numbers.
There is the risk of a general breakdown of law and order, however. The pro-Iran PMUs have been moonlighting as muscle for a variety of interests, some somewhat ‘legal’ as private security firms in the south (a few have landed security contracts with non-Western IOCs operating there), while in the case of Basra a few PMUs have tried to extract money from contractors on behalf of their debtors in an extra-legal manner. Pro-Iran PMUs tried to expropriate materiel from the Iraqi Army in Beiji, for example, by applying pressure on some army units to mark their vehicles and weapons as destroyed or lost. PMUs have also profited from expropriating private property in Sunni areas such as agricultural equipment and new cars, although very little of that remains to be taken. Yet I find it highly unlikely that they can turn back time to the situation that was prevalent in 2006-2008 when militias were running amok in central and southern Iraq; they are finding that the entrenched political and economic interests (notables, tribes, parties) there had solidified in the intervening years and are consequently too strong to be confronted head-on.
It may also turn out that the PMUs would begin cannibalizing each other as they fight for the scraps. The erosion in the stature and resources of the pro-Iran PMUs over the next few months may reflect upon the Provincial Council election results that their associated political arms may achieve in 2017. The PMUs did not get the opportunity to cash-in their popularity after Mosul into political ascendancy by way of either provincial council seats or parliamentary slots.
Abuses by pro-Iran PMUs
Human rights abuses against Sunnis, as well as their own de facto regional ‘diplomacy’, may give Baghdad the casus belli it needs to further sideline the pro-Iran PMUs.
Instances such as the well-documented disappearance of 900 to 1400 young Sunni men escaping from Anbar province after being arrested/abducted at PMU-run checkpoints in Bzeibiz and Razzaza, and the abduction of the Qatari hunting party, may portray the PMUs as out-of-control in the eyes of Baghdad, and Iraqi public opinion at large. The Iraqi government is still strong enough to tip a confrontation with the pro-Iran PMUs to its favor should it come to that, and the Iranian leadership, divided as it is, may not have the stomach for such a development. (NOTE: The Governor of Anbar submitted a list of 700 abductees to the Iraqi government a month ago)
One source claims that 400 of the abductees were handed over to the Ministry of Interior over the last few days, indicating that the pro-Iran PMUs are interested in resolving such thorny issues, forestalling a confrontation. On the Qatar front, Lebanese Hezbollah’s point person for Iraq is leading the negotiations for the release of the hunting party.
The tide is turning against the pro-Iran PMUs. Recent news reports that Abadi is trying to sideline Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis are not accurate, but they do indicate a change of mood: the balance of power has shifted. Of course, a major shift on the battlefield in the favor of IS would bring us back to square one, and the public mood may shift again towards Suleimani and his PMUs. However, there is “chatter” among political operatives in Baghdad and in regional capitals that the Ramadi win may be followed-up with a non-military win in Falloujah, which would also go a long way towards establishing popular confidence in the Abadi government and the Iraqi Army.