Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must disband the majority of the Iran-linked Shia paramilitary groups that fought alongside the army against the Islamic State or risk sparking an outbreak of sectarian violence following the terror group’s looming defeat, one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians warned Thursday.
With the Islamic State nearly pushed out of the country, senior lawmakers and top leaders in the Abadi government face the task of knitting the often-feuding segments of Iraqi society back into a cohesive state, Salim al-Jubouri, speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, said on a visit to Washington.
“Our message is not to be desperate” for U.S. or international intervention to avoid renewed fighting between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities, he told the Washington-based think tank U.S. Institute for Peace.
“The impetus is to build the national state of Iraq” and not open the door to a new round of sectarian violence, Mr. al-Jubouri said. Key to avoiding new sectarian conflict will be disbanding the Iranian-backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or PMFs, Mr. al-Jubouri said.
“We need to bring balance to the Iraqi military” and larger security forces, he said, noting that not all of the Shia paramilitary units organized underneath the PMF banner posed a threat to the country’s stability.
The PMF forces, many trained and armed by Iranian military advisers, cannot continue to operate under the Iraqi flag, he said. “Those factions must be dissolved,” he told the audience at USIP on Thursday.
His comments come less than a week after a top official in the Abadi government publicly questioned the loyalties of the Shia militias fighting as part of the PMFs.
“Some have no problems, some have affiliations and loyalty” to Iran and not the central government in Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, another leading Sunni politician, said last week.
“They have their own political aspirations, their own [political] agendas,” he said. Acting as a “parallel force” to the Iraqi military, “they are very dangerous to the future of Iraq,” Mr. al-Nujaifi added.
The warning comes as Iraq is preparing for critical parliamentary elections which could dramatically remake the country’s legislative body in May.
Despite deep skepticism among Iraq’s Sunni minority about the Shia militias, the prime minister may find it difficult to disassociate his regime from the PMFs and their patrons in Iran, which like Iraq has a Shia Muslim majority.
The militias played a key role in U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Province against Islamic State, including the bloody offensive to liberate Mosul, once the country’s second largest city.
Most recently, Shia militias helped retake the governorates of Kirkuk and Sinjar from Kurdish forces, part of a larger clash to head off a drive for independence by the Kurds. Shia militias and Iraqi forces continue to mass along the borders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, as Baghdad and Erbil seek a political solution to the standoff.
Kurdish parliamentarians ended their boycott of the national parliament Thursday, returning to Baghdad in an attempt to coax the Abadi government to the negotiation table over Kurdistan’s status. “We want to start dialogue with the central government,” Kurdish lawmaker Renas Jano told The Associated Press.
Kurdish lawmakers have stayed away since the parliament declared a Kurdish independence referendum vote unconstitutional in September. Erbil has offered “unconditional dialogue” with the Abadi regime, since Iraqi military forces recaptured Kirkuk and Sinjar, said Kurdish Regional Government Representative to the U.S. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman.
“If there is a willingness for dialogue, we have opened the way,” Ms. Rahman said during a recent interview with The Washington Times. “We do not have any [diplomatic] dialogue … and that is not sustainable.”