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Iraq Trains US-sanctioned 'PMF' Leader

Iraq Trains US-sanctioned 'PMF' Leader

Saturday, 28 November, 2020 - 05:00
Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) march during a military parade in Daquq, nearby Kirkuk, Iraq August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

The Iraqi military is training a former member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who is under US sanctions for killing protesters, to become a high-ranking officer in the army, according to six government, security and militia officials.

The sources said that 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 defense ministry document seen by Reuters showed his name, with the rank Major General, on a list of officers attending the training until next summer.

According to the officials, making Lami a senior officer in the army is one of the boldest moves yet by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to dilute the power of Iran-backed militias in Iraq,

They added that the moves aligns with Washington's stated desire to curtail Tehran's influence across the Middle East.

Supporters of the plan see it as a way of weakening armed groups that boast tens of thousands of fighters and who hold considerable sway over Iraq's security and economy.

They said it will hasten the fracturing of some groups belonging to PMF, the state paramilitary umbrella organization whose security branch Lami has directed for years.

An Iraqi official, speaking on behalf of the government, declined to comment on Lami, but said there was a plan to restructure the PMF, including providing military training to its leaders.

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.

"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 Lami would take up.

Egyptian military officials denied 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.

Lami is the head of security for Iraq's state paramilitary grouping and a one-time member of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia. The source close to him denied he had any formal ties to Iran or the armed forces 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. Lami has since denied any role in the killing of peaceful demonstrators.

An Iraqi security official said recruiting Lami into the army was part of an attempt by 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 Kadhimi is trying to change.

Sheikh Ali al-Asadi, an official in the Iran-aligned Nujaba militia group, said giving 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's become."

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