Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is facing a difficult dilemma. He knows the United States is withdrawing from Iraq and, although he is an ally and supporter of the U.S., that they won’t be coming to help him in the future. But he’s also trying to weaken the power of the Iranian-proxy militias that ostensibly fall under the Iraqi military, but answer first to the Iranian.
So, al-Kadhimi is making a bold, if dangerous, move by sending one of the leaders of the Iranian-led militias to Egypt for training to become an officer in the Iraqi army. Hussein Falih Aziz, also known as Abu Zainab al-Lami, has been sent to Egypt with Iraqi officers for a year-long training normally reserved for the country’s military personnel. Documents leaked to the media list al-Lami’s rank as a major general.
Al-Lami is the head of security for Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Iraq’s state paramilitary group, and a one-time member of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia.
The same source close to him, which confirmed he’s attending the training, also stated that al-Lami has denied any formal ties to either the Iranians or the militia group.
The U.S. has placed sanctions on al-Lami for his role in firing on and killing unarmed anti-government protesters. Al-Lami has denied any role in the killing of peaceful demonstrators.
The Kadhimi government’s hope is that by giving al-Lami a high commission he will bring the PMF closer to the government and weaken the influence that Iran has on the group. Although the PMF is supposed to report to the military and to the Iraqi government, that has not been the case. The PMF’s most dominant factions report to Iran.
The group made that abundantly clear last summer, when tensions were running high and several of its leaders threatened Kadhimi.
The militias had been openly targeting U.S.-led coalition forces by launching rockets at U.S. bases and the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. embassy is located.
In January of last year, after violence had escalated, the U.S. responded by launching a drone strike at Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and the officer in charge of Iran’s policies in Iraq. Along with him was the Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Both were killed by the strike.
Soon after Kadhimi took over as prime minister, he had a standoff with the Iranian militias, particularly the Kataib Hezbollah, after he ordered a raid on one of the militia’s headquarters whereafter they threatened to replace him.
Critics are not confident that the plan to weaken the Iranian influence on the militias will work. In fact, many believe that this move may actually have the opposite effect and embolden the militias further.
Sheikh Ali al-Asadi, an official in the Iran-aligned Nujaba militia group, said that giving Lami full officer training was a sign of the PMF’s strength and not something that would weaken the group’s influence.
“This is proof of the PMF’s success — someone being taken from the PMF to work in the army shows how strong it’s become.”
About 10 days ago, an Iranian proxy militia characterized as a sub-group of Kataib Hezbollah, fired rockets at the Green Zone, and specifically at the U.S. Embassy. Several of the rockets were intercepted by the Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-Ram) system installed near the U.S. Embassy. Yet, several others fell in nearby civilian areas, killing at least one child and injuring several civilians. The attack did not kill or wound any Americans.
After the child’s death, Kataib Hezbollah denied the rocket attack, calling it, instead, an act of the Trump administration after a failed re-election.