Matthew Petti, Columbia University:
When a CNN crew visited Wahida Mohamad al-Jumaily, a female commander in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) of Iraq, they were shocked by a gruesome sight. Ms. Jumaily, known by the nom de guerre Umm-Hanadi, had photographed herself decapitating and cooking the corpses of ISIS fighters. This incident is not the first high-profile allegation of abuse by the PMU, which have been controversial since their inception. Umm-Hanadi is not even the only PMU fighter accused of culinary-themed corpse desecration. However, her case is extremely unique for reasons other than its absurdity. For one, Umm-Hanadi is one of the female PMU fighters; more importantly, her Sunni background complicates attempts to portray PMU war crimes as pure sectarianism. The story of Umm-Hanadi, like the story of the PMU, is more complicated than commentators would like to portray.
The PMU has seen growing opposition since its inception during 2014. Supporters, usually Iraqi nationalists, portray the units as heroic defenders of Iraq’s sovereignty and world security against ISIS barbarity. They are quick to downplay or dismiss allegations of abuse. On the other hand, detractors claim that the PMU are at best Iranian proxies, and at worst sectarian gangsters, committing acts of ethnic cleansing against a defenseless Sunni population. The latter line has been taken by much of the Arabic-speaking media. By referring to PMU as “Shi’ite forces” or “Shi’a militias“, the English-speaking media often implicitly agree with this narrative. However, the reality is more complicated than either side would have it.
To the latter camp’s credit, elements of the PMU have been responsible for horrendous actions. Commander Abu Azrael, named for the Angel of Death, once made headlines for cooking ISIS fighters’ corpses like kebab. Worse than abusing the dead, the PMU have been accused of large scale collective punishment following the Battle of Tikrit and the Battle of Fallujah. For example, hundreds of people disappeared in the liberation of Fallujah, with reports that many were kidnapped and tortured by the PMU. Although some perpetrators were investigated and prosecuted, such acts cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the Iraqi state.
However, the PMU are not simply instruments of Shi’ite revenge. As the nascent Iraqi Army crumbled in the face of an ISIS onslaught, thousands of Iraqi men took up arms in the summer of 2014 in defense of the Iraqi nation-state. Certainly, some PMU were religious in nature, encouraged by figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Furthermore, some elements that would become PMU were involved with the post-2003 sectarian conflict. However, other religious groups–such as Chaldean Christians and Sunni Muslims–have also formed PMU. While there is a recognition that an ISIS victory would mean the massacre of Shi’ites specifically, as happened in Camp Speicher, the PMU are fighting not for a Shi’ite statelet but for the present-day Iraqi nation-state. In fact, many PMU are drawn from Sunni volunteers from liberated areas–volunteers such as Umm-Hanadi.
A native of the Sunni-majority town of Tikrit, she boasts of collaborating with the Iraqi state since 2004. Both ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, have attempted to murder Umm-Hanadi at least seven times between 2006 and 2014. While they failed, three of Umm Hanadi’s brothers were killed, as well as her father and her first and second husbands. When the Iraqi military began operations to liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Umm-Hanadi formed a militia as part of the Popular Mobilization. She continued to fight during the Battle of al-Shirqat, during which the decapitations would have occurred. Given this tragic backstory, her acts of abuse seem more like personal revenge than any kind of ethnic or sectarian hatred–especially since Umm-Hanadi is Sunni herself.
The problem is a failure of mechanisms of oversight and accountability. Although the Iraqi state has taken important steps to regulate and integrate the PMU, it still serves as an instrument of score-settling for many. A recent VICE News documentary shows even regular army forces relying on hearsay as evidence for arresting accused collaborators. Not as large-scale as sectarian warfare but just as deadly, blood feuds have also marred the post-ISIS reconstruction period. In the outskirts of Tikrit, Umm-Hanadi’s hometown, the Sunni clan of Jabour took part in collective retribution against other Sunni families accused of collaborate with ISIS. Finally, pure opportunism may lead many fighters, regardless of lineage or sect, to participate in the widely-reported looting. None of these things are an excuse to violate human rights or enact collective punishments, but they show that the problem is more complicated than sectarian warfare.
Portraying the PMU as a collection of Shi’ite militias is not simply lazy or disrespectful. It conceals the complicated motivations and perceptions of Iraqis; after all, the American media did not refer to the Ferguson Police Department as “Caucasian forces.” Even worse, it may cause some to seriously misdiagnose the problems facing Iraq. Such a misunderstanding may lead to policies which fail to reduce human rights abuses while worsening the sectarian situation. As War on the Rocks writes, “American analysts seem even more sectarian than most people in the Middle East in promoting and legitimizing the Sunni-Shia divide.” Hopefully, the tragic case of Umm-Hanadi also reveals that the divide is not set in stone.