Iraq Militia Defends Official Who Fought ISIS, Mistaken for Supporter by U.S.

The commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitary collective has issued a defense of a senior militia official who headed an Iran-aligned group that fought the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) but was mistakenly accused by the U.S. Treasury of supporting the jihadis.

As part of a final flurry of foreign policy moves lashing out at foes of President Donald Trump's administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branded Popular Mobilization Forces deputy commander Abdulaziz al-Muhammadawi, also known as Abu Fadak, a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" on Wednesday.

In addition to his previously leading the "Iran-backed terrorist organization" Kataib Hezbollah, Pompeo alleged he was "separately working in conjunction with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force to reshape official Iraqi state security institutions away from their true purpose of defending the Iraqi state and fighting ISIS."

But the Treasury Department initially carried a different accusation in a press release that accompanied his designation, linking him to ISIS itself, officially called "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant." The online version of the report still includes the group's name, but crossed out, and a notice replaces it with that of Kataib Hezbollah.

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

But Popular Mobilization Forces leader Falih al-Fayyadh, who himself was hit with sanctions just last Thursday, spoke out in defense of Muhammadawi, whose units took on ISIS during Iraq's existential struggle against the militants, a battle to which both the U.S. and Iran contributed.

"It arouses disapproval to classify as terrorists those who faced terrorism and made tremendous sacrifices and fought the fiercest battles on behalf of the world in order to defeat the most powerful dark and extremist force represented by ISIS terrorists, and to abort their project to destroy Iraq and the region and to shed blood and dignity, and which America makes broad and empty claims that it is waging a war on them," Fayyadh said in a statement sent to Newsweek by the Popular Mobilization Forces.

iraq, popular, mobilization, forces, hezbollah, isis
Iraqi security forces and members of the Popular Mobilization Forces advance riding on a Talha armored personnel carrier displaying an Kataib Hezbollah flag and a painted Iraqi national flag advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, in western Anbar province, on the Syrian border as they fight against remnant pockets of ISIS, November 1, 2017. Kataib Hezbollah and allied militias fought on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

He derided the U.S. for having proclaimed itself "the guardian of the world" and for making a habit out of "violating the sovereignty of states and violating the dignity of peoples," including in Iraq, where lawmakers voted last year to expel U.S. troops following a deadly airstrike at Baghdad International Airport.

"We believe that the Iraqi state will be the deterrent to the repeated U.S. violations of Iraqi sovereignty, and we renew the covenant for our wise marjaeya," he said in reference to the Shiite Islamic authority, "and our proud people to remain loyal soldiers and guerrillas and statesmen in the service of our great Iraq and to preserve its land, dignity and sanctities."

The attack took out Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and Muhammadawi's predecessor, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, along with their entourage of several other men. Trump was recently found guilty of criminality in the act by an Iraqi judge, who dealt the U.S. leader a charge punishable by death.

Of his own recent addition to the U.S. sanctions list, Fayyadh declined to comment. He said he was "satisfied" with the earlier reaction offered earlier by his organization.

"We congratulate the friend of the martyrs, Popular Mobilization Committee Chairman Falih al-Fayyadh, on his inclusion with the honorable ones whom the U.S. administration considers enemies," a Popular Mobilization Forces spokesperson said in a statement sent to Newsweek last Thursday.

"Our leaders are terrifying America," the spokesperson added in hashtag form at the time.

The Popular Mobilization Forces were formed in 2014 among mostly Shiite Muslim forces scrambling to repel and defeat rapid, cross-country gains by ISIS. A number of groups that joined the umbrella had previously pooled their efforts against U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was accused of amassing weapons of mass destruction and harboring Al-Qaeda, a pretext later widely challenged as unevidenced.

Hussein's violent ouster also sparked a bloody Sunni Muslim insurgency dominated by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which led to ISIS' formation years later a decade later. While both the U.S. and Iran backed Iraq's battle against ISIS, tensions between Washington and Tehran have since dominated amid dueling accusations that the other supported terrorism in the Middle East.

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Paratroopers with Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, conduct a live-mortar fire exercise December 29, 2020 at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, where Iran's Revolutionary Guard had fired a barrage of ballistic missiles in the wake of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani's killing alongside Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis almost exactly a year earlier. Staff Sergeant Armando Vasquez/2nd Brigade Combat Team/82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs/U.S. National Guard

In another major announcement in the final days of the Trump administration, Pompeo delivered a speech Tuesday accusing Iran of secretly supporting Al-Qaeda, a move denounced by Iranian mission to the United Nations spokesperson Alireza Miryousefi as "preposterous" and "false" in a statement sent to Newsweek at the time.

The Trump administration's abandonment of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and subsequent sanctions against the Islamic Republic have inflamed regional tensions. Set to take office in less than a week, President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reenter the nuclear agreement, though it's unclear what effect this would have on the hardening of Iran allies against U.S. forces in the region, including Iraq.

Though the Popular Mobilization Forces were formally inducted into the country's armed forces in 2018, the same year the White House left the nuclear agreement, rogue Shiite Muslim militias have once again taken to targeting U.S. forces with rocket attacks.

As Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi attempts to reign in the "outlaw" groups by arresting members of forces such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, their leaders have issued warnings that they were capable of using their power and influence to resist the Iraqi state. They've also repeatedly demanded Kadhimi abide by last year's vote to force a withdrawal of U.S. soldiers.

The Trump administration has reduced the number of U.S. troops and positions in Iraq, but neither his nor the incoming Biden administration have announced a timetable for withdrawal.