The Iraqi military is training a former member of an Iran-backed militia, under US sanctions for killing protesters, to become a high-ranking officer in the army, according to government, security and militia officials.
They said Hussein Falih Aziz, known as Abu Zainab al-Lami, was sent to Egypt with Iraqi officers for year-long training normally reserved for the country’s military personnel.
A defence ministry document seen by Reuters showed his name, with the rank Major General, on a list of officers attending the training until next summer.
Making 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 militias in Iraq, the officials said. It aligns with Washington’s stated desire to curtail Tehran’s influence across the Middle East.
A source close to Lami confirmed his deployment to Egypt for training.
Supporters of the plan see it as a way of weakening militias that boast tens of thousands of fighters and hold considerable sway over Iraq’s security and economy.
They say it will hasten fracturing of groups belonging to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the state paramilitary umbrella organisation whose security branch Lami has directed for years.
An Iraqi official, speaking on behalf of 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 call it a risky gambit that puts someone with a questionable human rights record and close to Iran at the heart of the Iraqi military.
They see it as another sign the prime minister is giving concessions to some of the most hardline, 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 in 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. 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. One Egyptian security source said he was in Egypt in October, without elaborating.
Lami is head of security for Iraq’s state paramilitary grouping and a one-time member of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia. A source close to him denied he had formal ties to Iran or the militias it supports.
He was put under US sanctions in 2019 for his alleged role in ordering the use of lethal force against anti-government protesters. Lami has since denied any role in killing peaceful demonstrators.
The tenure of Kadhimi, who took office in May, is marked by a face-off between his government, 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 strike in Baghdad in January left the militias in disarray.
Kadhimi sided with the US to weaken Iran-aligned Shi’ite Muslim groups that have grown to dominate Iraq’s economy and state institutions since the US-led overthrow of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Kadhimi made security sector reform a priority, focusing on a reshuffle of top state security posts.
US and Iraqi officials say the militias continue to harass the 3 000 or so 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 recruiting Lami for 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,” he told Reuters.