US piles pressure on Iran-backed militia commanders in Iraq with new sanctions

As militias gain ground, Washington hopes to create splits in Baghdad’s political scene, analysts say

24 April 2019, Iraq, Baghdad: Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) chairman Falih Alfayyadh attends a conference organized by the predominantly Shia Muslim PMF to honour Iranian fighters who died fighting the so-called Islamic State (IS) terror group. Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/dpa (Photo by Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The outgoing US administration blacklisted a second senior leader in Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in the space of a week. The PMF is an umbrella group composed mainly of Iran-backed Shiite militias and the move is intended to increase pressure on Iran's proxies in the country.

On Wednesday, the US State Department listed Abd Al Aziz Malluh Mirjirash, the PMF chief of staff and Iran-allied militia leader, as a "specially designated global terrorist" for his role in undermining security in Iraq. Mirjirash goes by two nom de guerres, Abu Fadak and sometimes, Al Khal, or "the uncle". He is also known by his tribal name Al Muhammadawi.

Al Muhammadawi has worked with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force to “reshape official Iraqi state security institutions away from their true purpose of defending the Iraqi state and fighting ISIS, to instead support Iran’s malign activities, including the defence of the Assad regime in Syria”, the State Department said.

It also accused him of being “involved in sectarian violence, including the abductions of hundreds of men from areas liberated from ISIS control", and establishing militant groups under cover names to attack Iraqi government facilities and diplomatic missions, referring to military bases hosting American troops and the US embassy in Baghdad.

"The Hashdi Al Shaabi congratulates the brave leader, Abu Fadak Al Muhammadawi to be on America's blacklist," the PMF said on its Twitter account, using the group's Arabic name.

The US "has targeted the leaders of the victory who have taken part in eliminating the global terrorism [of ISIS]", it said, posting a picture of a smiling Abu Fadak.

Born in 1968, Al Muhammadawi joined the Badr Corp in the early 1980s, a group established in Iran by an Iraqi opposition party that fought with Iran against Saddam Hussein. He was a close aide to the group’s leader, Hadi Al Amiri, and was in charge of its intelligence service.

After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, he refused to join the political process and instead established what the US called “special groups” – militants trained, armed and financed by Iran to attack US troops in Iraq.

He later joined the Hezbollah Brigades, one of Iran's most notorious proxy forces, rising to the role of secretary general. Hezbollah Brigades were formed by Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, who was killed last year in a US air strike with the leader of Iran's Quds Force in Baghdad, Qassem Suleimani.

In 2017, he left the Hezbollah Brigades over a disagreement with its leaders related to a failed attempt to acquire a ransom, stemming from the kidnapping of Qatari royal family members, who were in Iraq on a hunting trip in 2015.

When pro-reform protests broke out in central and southern Iraq in October 2019, he returned to the Hezbollah Brigades and his name was associated with numerous attacks against the protesters and activists.

The unprecedented protests were seen by the pro-Iran camp in Iraq as being instigated by agents of western embassies. One of the protest demands was to decrease Iran's overbearing influence in Iraq. The protests largely died down because of the pandemic and a brutal crackdown by government forces, in particular Shiite militias.

His nickname, Al Khal, was scrawled on the walls of a multi-storey parking garage in Baghdad that militias attacked in December. At least a dozen protesters were killed at the site. Days later, the same name appeared on the US embassy walls after an attack by the militia members in a phrase that read: “The Uncle passed through here.”

After the killing of Al Muhandis, who was the PMF deputy chairman, Iran-backed militias pushed for Abu Fadak to take his place, but his nomination was rejected by other factions, mainly those who are loyal to the Shiite spiritual cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The latter militia groups choose to follow the Iraqi government’s orders.

"The reason the Trump administration used some of its remaining time in office to complete this designation is because IRGC-QF and fasail [Iran-backed militias] have forged ahead with their uphill battle to make Abu Fadak 'the next [Al] Muhandis'," said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank.

FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2020 file photo, released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, worshippers chant slogans during Friday prayers ceremony, as a banner show Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, left, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack on Jan. 3, and a banner which reads in Persian: "Death To America, "at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran. On Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, Iraq’s judiciary issued an arrest warrant for outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump in connection with the killing of Soleimani and a al-Muhandis last year. The warrant was issued by a judge in Baghdad’s investigative court tasked with probing the Washington-directed drone strike, the court’s media office said. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)

"The US government rightly does not want a known terrorist with American and Iraqi blood on his hands to slip on to the political spectrum, where many other senior fasail members are trying to ensconce themselves as well," Mr Knights wrote in a brief analysis.

The designation will allow the incoming administration “to maintain pressure” on Iran-allied militias, and push other factions to take steps to undermine Hezbollah Brigades and others inside the government, he said.

Since taking office in February as de facto chief of staff, Abu Fadak is rarely seen in public, and seldom appears on camera, unlike Al Muhandis, who seemed to enjoy cultivating the image of a man perpetually on the front lines.

During the commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Suleimani and Al Muhandis, he was seen standing in front of a crowd who called for revenge, while pointing to his eyes – the gesture of a pledge.

Abu Fadak’s designation came a few days after the US Treasury Department’s decision to sanction the PMF chairman, Falih Al Fayyadh, accusing him of human rights offences for his role in quelling the protests, with the support of Iran’s Quds Force.

"Abu Fadak is the new variant of coronavirus in Iraq," an activist told The National. "Hezbollah Brigades are the striking force for Iran in Iraq and had a role in killing and kidnapping protesters and activists," he said.

"We don't see the move as paving the way to try Abu Fadak or Al Fayyadh, but to eliminate them," he said.

Hezbollah Brigades was established in Iraq after 2003, and has no formal links to the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

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