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US diplomatic staff evacuation will likely be accompanied by increased pressure on Iraqi government to disarm PMU militias

17 May 2019
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President of Iraq Barham Salih (right) chats with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) during their meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, on 8 May 2019. Source: Iraqi Presidential Press Office Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On 15 May, the US State Department ordered its non-emergency staff to evacuate its embassy and consular facilities in Baghdad and Erbil in response to intelligence of a threat to US forces. Saudi news site al-Arabiyya also alleged that Exxon Mobil was evacuating engineers from West Qurna, Basra, although there was no confirmation of this by Exxon Mobil, only that it was "closely monitoring" the situation.

  • Rocket attacks and attempted attacks over the past nine months indicate an intent of PMUs to present an impression of 'resistance' to US forces in Iraq, without crossing US 'red lines'. This is despite a denial by Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), an Iran-aligned group in the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), on 11 May that it would target US forces in Iraq. Prior examples include a failed Katyusha rocket launched outside Taji airbase, north of Baghdad, on 1 May 2019; the discovery by Iraqi Security Forces of rockets targeting Ain al-Asad airbase in February 2019; and rocket attacks targeting the US embassy and consulate in Basra in September 2018.
  • Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi is unable and unwilling to disarm the PMUs and subsume them into the army or police, which is likely to have been a key demand of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Baghdad on 8 May. Al-Mahdi is not in a position to order the integration of the PMU into the army or police without losing his post, and forcible attempts to disarm the PMU would heighten the prospects of a civil war. The PMUs are an official arm of the state with political representation in Parliament, and are deemed vital to operations targeting the Islamic State. Abd al-Mahdi will know that they would be likely to turn their weapons against the state if threatened.

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