Unique: Iraq trains the US-sanctioned militia chief for the place of the military – sources

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A supporter of Hashid Shaabi (People’s Mobilization Forces) holds a picture of Qanes Force Commander in Chief Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a US air strike during a protest in the United States

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By John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGDAD (Reuters) – The Iraqi military is training a former member of an Iran-backed militia under US sanctions for killing protesters to become a senior army officer, according to six government, security and militia officials.

They said Hussein Falih Aziz, known as Abu Zainab al-Lami, was sent to Egypt with Iraqi officers for a year-long training course normally reserved for the country’s military personnel.

A Defense Department document inspected by Reuters showed his name with the rank of major general on a list of officers who would attend the training until next summer.

Making Lami a senior army officer is one of the boldest moves yet by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a U.S. ally, to dilute the power of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, officials said, agreeing with Washington’s stated wish agree to limit Tehran’s influence in the Middle East.

An Iraqi government spokesman and Iranian officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

A source close to Lami confirmed his training in Egypt.

Proponents of the plan see it as a way to weaken militias, which have tens of thousands of fighters and which have a major impact on the security and economy of Iraq.

They say it would hasten the breakup of some groups belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the state paramilitary umbrella organization whose security division Lami has headed 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 Lami, but said there was a plan to restructure the PMF, including military training for its leaders.

However, some critics call it a risky game where someone with a questionable human rights record, close to Iran, is at the center of the Iraqi military.

They see it as yet another sign that the prime minister is making concessions to even some of the toughest Iranian-minded officials in order to secure his government’s support.

“The plan is to provide PMF leaders who are not considered completely loyal to Iran and through this military training to prepare them for positions within the military and security apparatus,” said a security official.

“Lami will be given a managerial position after completing the training,” added the official, who refused to be named due to the sensitivity of the problem. He did not indicate what position Lami would take.

Egyptian military officials denied that Lami was part of a group of Iraqi officers trained in Egypt. However, an Egyptian security source said he was in Egypt in October without elaborating on it.

US SANCTIONS

Lami is the security chief of the paramilitary group of the Iraqi state and a one-time member of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia. The source close to him denied having any formal ties with Iran or any of the militias he supported.

He was placed 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 murder of peaceful protesters.

The term of office of Kadhimi, who took office in May, was marked by a clash between his government and parts of the armed forces on the one hand and Iranian-oriented militias on the other.

The US murder of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone attack in Baghdad in January disorganized the militia earlier this year.

Kadhimi has sided with the United States to weaken the Iranian-leaning Shiite Muslim groups that have dominated the Iraqi economy and state institutions since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The US State Department declined to comment on the article.

Kadhimi has made security sector reform a priority and has focused on reshuffling key state security posts.

However, US and Iraqi officials say the militias continue to harass the roughly 3,000 remaining US troops in Iraq. Some lesser-known militia groups said they were behind rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad.

An Iraqi security official said the recruitment of Lami into the army was part of an attempt by Kadhimi to bring the PMF closer to his government.

The PMF reports nominally 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 with the Iranian-focused Nujaba militia group, said the full officer training for Lami was a sign of the PMF’s strength and not something that would weaken the paramilitaries.

“This is evidence of the PMF’s success – someone taken by the PMF to work in the army shows how strong it has become,” he told Reuters.

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