Iraq’s PMU throws weight behind countering COVID-19

Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, despite being plagued by disunity recently, is assisting the Iraqi government in fighting the novel coronavirus.

al-monitor Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units take part in a military parade in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, Iraq, June 28, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

Apr 8, 2020

The Iraqi government is mobilizing all public and private resources to combat the coronavirus as it spreads in the country.

Iraqi President Barham Salih had declared a national initiative demanding that public and private sectors cooperate and that all Iraqis work together to stem the outbreak. 

Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi returned from his voluntary leave March 23 to follow through on the government's plan to fight the virus. Moreover, the prime minister-designate, Adnan Zurfi, has issued several statements addressing the matter.

Iraq formed a national panel, headed by Health Minister Jaafar Allawi and including the interior and defense ministers, to unify all efforts in confronting the coronavirus.

In this context, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) is also pitching in. The umbrella military organization comprises dozens of predominantly Shiite militia groups, many backed by Iran. PMU involvement in the coronavirus initiative is being organized and overseen by the PMU Committee, led by Falih al-Fayyadh. The Prime Minister, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, supervises the committee. Almost all PMU factions have been assisting the government plans in fighting the virus. 

The PMU has had a checkered run in Iraq since anti-government protests broke out in October 2019. Some of the member militias, including those associated with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have tried to stay out of the fray. Others associated more directly with Iran have been accused of attacking the protesters. The United States has been at war with Kataib Hezbollah (KH), an Iran-backed PMU brigade, since the group's attack on an Iraqi base killed an American contractor in December. Since that time, KH has escalated its actions against Americans and coalition forces, incurring US retaliation that included the Jan. 3 assassination by drone and missile strike of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and KH founder and PMU Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

President Salih referred to an attack that killed two Americans last month as terrorism, and a range of Iraqi officials condemned subsequent US retaliatory strikes that included positions for the Iraqi Security Forces and a facility in Karbala airport along the PMU. A militia named Usbat al-Thaireen claimed responsibility for the attack. 

The coronavirus provides the PMU an opportunity to step up as nationalists. The PMU said March 26 it had sanitized more than 2,000 sites. It has provided several field hospitals in the provinces of Dhi Qar, Babel, Karbala and Salahuddin.

This is part of the PMU plan, announced Feb. 26, to raise awareness about COVID-19 and counter the pandemic in Iraq. The plan first aims to protect the organization itself, and then the Iraqi public. The campaign, which officially started March 5, led by the PMU’s medical department, undertakes advocacy, sanitization and medical assistance, in cooperation with civil and state institutions, mainly the ministries of Health and Education.

The PMU also moved to assist the Iraqi government in enforcing the curfew across the country. The PMU declared a second stage for the campaign March 19, involving a major media effort that includes religious figures, tribal figures, university professors, television actors, poets and other prominent figures.

A senior physician cooperating with the PMU spoke with Al-Monitor March 28 on the condition of anonymity. Outlining PMU efforts in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the physician said, “The PMU provided several field hospitals to provincial health authorities and focused on the neediest provinces.” However, reflecting the security umbrella’s institutional limitations in providing social services, he said, “The PMU is represented in the areas where its personnel have an active presence. In those areas where it has less influence, it has no representatives — which means this is all linked to individuals.” He added, "Efforts are based on initiatives by the brigades, and the PMU hasn't allocated a budget for the crisis, unlike the case of last year’s floods, for which the PMU was well-prepared."

The doctor said, “The PMU isn't represented in the country’s top crisis panel [aiming to tackle the pandemic], but affiliated elements are present in provincial crisis cells, such as that of Salahuddin, Wasit, Muthanna and Basra provinces, the city of Baghdad’s peripheries and other crisis cells.” The physician estimated 3,000 people are active in the campaign, though Fayyadh said 5,000 have participated in its second stage.

The PMU has a website that explains the efforts of several brigades with different political orientations, including those linked to Iraq’s Shiite shrines and Sistani, and other factions. 

The brigades that guard Iraq's Shiite shrines that align with Sistani are reportedly considering abandoning the PMU and integrating with the Ministry of Defense. They reject a proposal to appoint a successor — Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (also known as Abu Fadak) — for Muhandis. Despite the schism, the PMU’s media department has highlighted the efforts of these brigades in countering the pandemic — possibly a gesture aimed at bridging the gap.

The assassination of Muhandis by the United States and the ensuing organizational disunity has taken a toll on its ability to tackle multiple crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic. But the PMU's contingency campaign to counter the pandemic in Iraq allows the group to assess public attitudes toward it after months of political polarization that started during the October protests.