New US leader’s policy towards Iraq remains unclear but Biden has a long and controversial legacy in the country.
The Iraqi military is training a former member of an Iran-backed paramilitary group, who is under sanctions imposed by the United States for killing protesters, to become a high-ranking officer in the army, according to six government, security and group officials.
They said Hussein Falih Aziz, known as Abu Zainab al-Lami, had been sent to Egypt with Iraqi officers for a year-long training normally reserved for the country’s military personnel.
A defence ministry document seen by the Reuters news agency showed his name, with the rank major general, on a list of officers attending the training until next summer.
Making al-Lami a senior officer in the army is one of the boldest moves yet by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a US ally, to dilute the power of Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq, the officials said, and aligns with Washington’s stated desire to curtail Tehran’s influence across the Middle East.
An Iraqi government spokesman and Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment, Reuters said.
A source close to al-Lami confirmed his deployment to Egypt for training.
Supporters of the plan see it as a way of weakening these groups that boast tens of thousands of fighters who hold considerable sway over Iraq’s security and economy.
They say it will hasten the fracturing of some groups belonging to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the state paramilitary umbrella organisation whose security branch al-Lami has directed for years.
The PMF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An Iraqi official, speaking on behalf of the government, declined to comment on al-Lami, but said there was a plan to restructure the PMF, including providing military training to its leaders.
A risky gambit
Some critics, however, call it a risky gambit that puts someone with a questionable human rights record and who has been close to Iran at the heart of the Iraqi military.
They see it as another sign the prime minister is giving concessions even to some of the most hard-line, Iran-aligned officials to secure support for his government.
“The plan is to bring onside PMF leaders who are not seen as totally loyal to Iran and to ready them through this military training for positions inside the military and security apparatus,” said a security official.
“Lami will be given a senior position when training is completed,” added the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. He did not specify what post al-Lami would take up.
Egyptian military officials denied al-Lami was among a batch of Iraqi officers undergoing training in Egypt. But one Egyptian security source said he had been in Egypt in October, without elaborating.
Al-Lami is the head of security for Iraq’s state paramilitary grouping and a one-time member of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah armed group. The source close to him denied he had any formal ties to Iran or the armed groups it supports.
He was put under US sanctions in 2019 for his alleged role, first reported by Reuters, in ordering the use of lethal force against anti-government protesters. Al-Lami has since denied any role in the killing of peaceful demonstrators.
The tenure of al-Kadhimi, who took office in May, has been marked by a face-off between his government and parts of the armed forces on one side, and Iran-aligned militias on the other.
The US killing of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone attack in Baghdad in January left the militias in disarray earlier this year.
Al-Kadhimi has sided with the US in efforts to weaken Iran-aligned Shia Muslim groups that have grown to dominate Iraq’s economy and state institutions since the US-led overthrow of Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The US state department declined to comment, Reuters said.
Al-Kadhimi has made security sector reform a priority, focusing on a reshuffle of top state security posts. Yet, the US and Iraqi officials say the militias continue to target the 3,000 or so remaining US troops based in Iraq.
Some lesser-known militia groups said they were behind rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad.
Bringing the PMF closer
An Iraqi security official said recruiting al-Lami into the army was part of an attempt by al-Kadhimi to bring the PMF closer to his government.
The PMF nominally reports to the prime minister, but its most dominant factions are close to Iran – something al-Kadhimi is trying to change.
Sheikh Ali al-Asadi, an official in the Iran-aligned Nujaba paramilitary group, said giving al-Lami full officer training was a sign of the PMF’s strength and not something that would weaken the paramilitaries.
“This is proof of the PMF’s success – someone being taken from the PMF to work in the army shows how strong it has become,” he told Reuters.