February 26, 2020 | Policy Brief

New Leader Takes Helm of Iranian Proxy Forces in Iraq

February 26, 2020 | Policy Brief

New Leader Takes Helm of Iranian Proxy Forces in Iraq

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) – the paramilitary organization that encompasses the country’s pro-Iran and Shiite militias – named Abdulaziz al-Mohammadawi, also known as Abu Fadak, as its new leader last week. Like his late predecessor, Abu Fadak is loyal to the interests of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF).

Abu Fadak replaces Jamal Jafar al-Ibrahimi, known by his popular nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in January by a U.S. drone strike, along with IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani. Muhandis’ career personified Iran’s goal of exporting its Islamic Revolution abroad. He fought with Iran against Ba’athist Iraq during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War; participated in Iran-backed terror operations in Kuwait in the 1980s; targeted U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq after 2003; and provided material support to designated terrorist groups, such as the IRGC-QF, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Prior to becoming a PMU commander, Muhandis founded one of the most lethal pro-Iran militias in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), which carried out the December 2019 round of military provocations that culminated in the U.S. killing of Soleimani. Muhandis was a close associate of Soleimani, having fought in numerous conflicts with the Quds Force leader. Similarly, photos can be found on social media showing Abu Fadak leading Soleimani in prayer as well as being held and kissed by him.

Like many Shiite Islamists, Abu Fadak was an opponent of the Saddam Hussein regime, and as early as 1983, reportedly began to work in an intelligence capacity in Iraq for the Badr Corps, Iran’s oldest proxy. During the 2003–2011 U.S. war in Iraq, Abu Fadak joined Iran’s effort to bleed American and coalition forces. The limited open-source material available claims Abu Fadak was part of KH during this time and later followed in Muhandis’ footsteps to become leader of the organization.

Abu Fadak and the PMU are also reported to have played a role in IRGC-directed military campaigns to save the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war. He also reportedly oversaw the domestic production of rockets and missiles in Iraq, likely by copying Iran-provided systems.

In 2009, KH became the first pro-Iran Shiite militia in Iraq to be placed on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. Given his leadership position in this FTO, in addition to his links with Muhandis and Soleimani, Abu Fadak should be sanctioned.

The administration could impose sanctions on Abu Fadak under two different executive orders: Executive Order 13438, which punishes those who threaten peace and stability in Iraq, and Executive Order 13224, which sanctions terrorists and their financial backers. Last year, President Trump expanded Executive Order 13224 to authorize secondary sanctions against targets as well.

Hopefully, designating Abu Fadak can help Washington regionalize its maximum pressure policy toward Iran. Imposing sanctions on Abu Fadak can signal to the Iraqi people, who are increasingly dissatisfied with the Iraqi political class and increased Iranian meddling, that Washington will not sit by as Iran seeks to reconstitute and grow its networks abroad at the expense of Iraqi and American interests.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Behnam, CEFP, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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