Given the Iranian support to these militias, the US has refused to work with them or act as their supporting air force, in the same way they have been for the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. They also fear that PMU participation in operations in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq would turn local Sunnis against the Iraqi military and the coalition, which would seriously complicate efforts to uproot and defeat ISIS.
In March 2015 the PMU single-handedly launched an offensive against then ISIS-occupied Tikrit. They told the Iraqi Army they were welcome to participate provided they forbid the US from joining up. This was an attempt to demonstrate that they could fight ISIS without Washington’s support. The stunt ended in abject failure for them. They withdrew under ISIS fire and the Iraqi Army moved in with US air support and recaptured the town in one of their first major victories against the militants since the war began (Kenneth M. Pollack, “Iraq’s Mr. Abadi Comes to Washington“, Brookings Institution, 13 April 2015).
By May 2016 the PMU had spent two years besieging ISIS in Bashir, a small farming village in the province of Kirkuk. They only succeeded in retaking that village after playing a small supporting role to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who managed to rout the militants in just a few days.
In the operation to recapture Fallujah (in May and June of this year) Baghdad allotted the PMU a supporting role in the operation, in hopes of keeping them out of the actual city. But in that role they still abused and brutalized some of the approximate 50,000 civilians who fled that bombed and ruined city throughout the course of that assault.
In the present operation in Mosul, a Sunni Arab-majority city with a remaining population of up to 1.2 million people in the hands of between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS militants, the coalition is again supporting the Iraqis in their endeavours against ISIS while opposing PMU participation.
The PMU have been given again a supporting role. In the two-week old operation, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been taking towns and villages from ISIS to the north, east and south, moving in closer to the city limits. Nobody has covered the west, leading to some speculation that the coalition secretly wants ISIS to evacuate Mosul to Syria to avoid a long drawn out and destructive battle in that metropolis.
Now, however, the PMU are moving in to Mosul’s west, fighting to capture Tal Afar (which has a large Turkmen population) and close off ISIS’s only escape route. This in turn means that two possible scenarios could come to be: ISIS doubles down and decides to fight to the death in Mosul knowing it has no exit route back to Syria, increasing the chance that more of Mosul will be destroyed and more civilians will be killed or ISIS tries to escape to Syria by trying to break through PMU lines.
The second scenario would be a particularly interesting one. While ISIS did fight sustained battles in Fallujah and the Syrian city of Manbij. In both cases they began withdrawing when it was clear they stood no chance. When leaving Fallujah their withdrawing convoys were bombed by both Iraqi and US coalition aircraft. From Manbij they managed to escape since the US suspected they had civilians with them as human shields.
If ISIS were to make a similar move in Mosul while the PMU remain the only force standing to their west that raises the question how the US and the coalition would respond. For one the coalition does not want to work with the PMU and the PMU do not in any way want to be seen working with the Americans – since they oppose their presence in Iraq to begin. Simply bombing ISIS as they try to break through PMU lines to get back to Syria increases the chance that the US kills PMU through lack of coordination, like it did to at least 62 Syrian soldiers in the city of Deir Ezzor when they mistook them for ISIS militants in the same vicinity in September. This would likely inflame the PMU and could lead them to target American forces and interests in Iraq in retaliation, as they have already threatened to do.
As the battle for Mosul progresses and looks set to last at least another few weeks, if not months, the role of the PMU should be carefully observed given the important positions they are now beginning to occupy.
Hauke Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2015.