These groups are undermining efforts to improve Erbil-Baghdad relations and reestablish security in the north.
Thousands of members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have marched in a parade showcasing tanks and rocket launchers, in the biggest demonstration of military might since the founding of the umbrella organisation of mostly Muslim Shia paramilitary groups.
The event on Saturday at a military base in Diyala province, in eastern Iraq, marked the seventh anniversary of the formation of the PMF, established after a 2014 call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to help defeat the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
At the time, ISIL held a third of Iraq’s territory and the PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi, was critical in helping the US-backed Iraqi army defeat it in 2017.
The parade, held in Camp Ashraf, saw Russian-made tanks, boats and locally made rocket launchers come down a broad thoroughfare. Iranian-made weaponry, including drones, were also displayed during the event that was broadcast on Iraqi state TV and was attended by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, officially the country’s commander-in-chief.
“I esteem your sacrifices, and the sacrifices of the Iraqi armed forces” in fighting ISIL, said al-Kadhimi, warning against any “sedition” within the PMF, but without elaborating.
The PMF’s establishment created a state-sanctioned umbrella organisation of mostly Muslim Shia militias backed by Iran.
Some experts contend it was Iranian pressure that pushed Iraq’s government to incorporate the PMF into the state’s security apparatus in 2016, a move that provided the fighters with heavy weaponry and significant financial resources. In 2019 alone, the PMF was allocated $2.16bn from the Iraqi state budget.
In recent years, the Iran-aligned factions, which are the most powerful in the PMF, have 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.
Al-Kadhimi, a US-friendly interim prime minister, has tried to crack down on the powerful Iranian-backed factions – but without much success, as the fighters are effectively part of the state itself.
In May, the government arrested the leader of a PMF group in Anbar province, before releasing him shortly afterwards without charge.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, described the parade as “incredibly controversial”.
“The prime minister didn’t want them in Baghdad, which is where they wanted to have this parade (in the international zone, known as the Green Zone) because he thought that would be a display of Iranian power within Iraq itself,” Khan said.
Also taking part in the parade were PMF units with Yazidi militiamen, who marched wearing their ceremonial white, as well as Christian and Muslim Sunni groups.
The marchers also held large posters of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top leader killed in a US drone strike last year outside the Baghdad airport. The strike also killed top Iranian commander, General Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, whose slaying came close to pushing Iran and the US into full-blown conflict.
However, though PMF often brandishes Soleimani’s image together with that of al-Muhandis at the paramilitary banners that line the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, images of the Iranian general were absent from the parade – likely an attempt to project cross-sectarian unity of the fighters.