Conflicting Reactions To Newly Appointed Deputy Commander Of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Signal Further Division Among Iraqi Shi'ite Ranks, Underline Iran's Struggle To Keep PMU United

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February 24, 2020

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On February 21, 2020, Iraqi media reported that the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have chosen Abdul Aziz Al-Muhamadawi, also known as Abu Fadak, as the successor to PMU Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike on January 3 along with the IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.[1]

The deputy chairman of the PMU, Abu Ali Al-Basri, told the Iraqi News Agency that "Abu Fadak was chosen as the new deputy commander during a high-level meeting," adding that "the order for the appointment of Abu Fadak will be signed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces within the next two days."[2]

While the announcement of Al-Muhamadawi's appointment was welcomed by Iran-backed militias,[3] four-armed factions linked to Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani shunned the move, saying that under the current political vacuum in Iraq, the announcement "has no legal grounds."

In the meantime, Chairman of the PMU, Falah Al-Fayadh, a government appointee, made no comment on whether the current caretaker government of Iraq has given its blessing to Al-Muhamadawi or not.[4]

However, local press reported that Iran has threatened Al-Fayadh, saying that he will be marginalized if he rejected the appointment.[5] 

The conflicting reactions over Al-Muhamadawi's appointment signals the growing divisions among Iraqi Shi'ites since the killing of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. Likewise, it underlines the struggle of Iran and its proxies in keeping the 70 factions of the PMU united under its umbrella in the face of strong resistance from Al-Sistani, whose aim is to bring the PMU back under the control of the Iraqi authorities.

Joint Statement By Factions Linked To Al-Sistani

On February 22, Four PMU factions linked to the Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issued a joint statement rejecting Al-Muhamadawi's appointment, these are the Al-Abbas Combat Division, the Ali Akbar Brigade, the Imam Ali Division, and the Ansar Marjaia Brigade.

"We are not aware of any appointment for the deputy commander position. Such an appointment requires legal grounds that do not exist under the current caretaker government, and the designated government, which has not been given the confidence [to make such a decision]."

The statement adds that "the forces formed by the shrines [sponsored by Al-Sistani] have already presented their vision to the Chairman [Falah Al-Fayadh] of the organization [PMU] and are awaiting an official response."[6]


Joint statement issued by four armed factions linked to Al-Sistani (source: Twitter.com)

The statement did not detail the vision of the four factions, but media reports indicate that they have threatened to withdraw from the PMU if the government does not limit Iranian influence within the institution.

Social media users in Iraq reported that the four factions seek to nominate Maytham Al-Zaydi, commander of the Al-Abbas Combat Division, as the successor to Al-Muhandis. Al-Zaydi appears to be widely respected among Iraqi nationalists, and is viewed as someone who is loyal to Al-Sistani and Iraq. Over the past two days, Al-Zaydi has been the subject of scrutiny by supporters of Iran-backed PMU on social media, who accused him of being an American agent because of his support for the anti-government protesters.[7]


Maytham Al-Zaydai, commander of Al-Abbas Combat Division (Source: Twitter.com)

Hizbullah Brigades' Statement Challenges Al-Sistani's PMU Factions

On February 22, Hizbullah Brigades issued a statement welcoming the appointment of Al-Muhamadawi as the new deputy commander, confirming that "it will provide full support to the new field leadership of the PMU and its jihadi factions."

It is worth noting that the statement was worded in a way that may indicate that Hizbullah Brigades is not part of the PMU and is more of an overseer. "While we commend this appointment [of Al-Muhamadawi], we would like to confirm our full support to the new field leadership of the PMU and its jihadist formations, and we will continue to provide assistance and advice in a way that serves the public interest including staff, capabilities, and expertise," the statement says.[8]

The statement further echoes a tone of challenge to the U.S. and its allies, as well as Al-Sistani's desire to separate the PMU from Iran. "The Hashad [PMU] has played a major role in confronting the criminal gangs of ISIS, which are backed by the American-Zionist and Saudi axis of evil. It is necessary to support this institution, strengthen it, and keep it independent of other security services, and to cut off those who plan to dismantle and end its role in jihad. We will stand against anyone who tries to undermine it, or offend it, from the enemies inside and outside," it says.


The Hizbullah Brigades' statement (Source: KataibHizbullah.com)

Who Is Al-Muhamadawi?

Al-Muhamadawi, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Fadak, held senior positions in Hizbullah Brigades in Iraq, and is said to be its secretary general.

Before 2003, Al-Muhamadawi oversaw several military operations against Saddam's regime as part of his senior position in the Badr Corps, the former military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

He was also involved in carrying out attacks against U.S. led forces after 2003 when he joined Hizbullah Brigades. He also fought and oversaw the PMU during the major military operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) in several Iraqi provinces.

Among Al-Muhamadawi's nicknames is "Al-Khal," which translates into "the uncle," a phrase that in Iraqi Arabic has similar usage to "big brother" in English. The nickname is widely recognized by the anti-government protesters, who said it was part of the message "The uncle passed by here," which is often written on walls by the militias involved in using violence against the protesters. It was also found written on the walls the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after it was breached by Iran-backed militias.

Since the announcement of his appointment, several photos of Al-Muhamadawi with Soleimani have surfaced on social media as part of what could be an attempt by Iran and its proxies to amplify his image as a valiant figure. 

In one photo, he is seen leading a group prayer while Soleimani is standing behind him. In Shi'ite creed, the congregational prayer is not a common thing to see, unless the leader of the prayer is a qualified imam and selected by a just ruler.


Al-Muhamadawi leading a group prayer and Soleimani (left) stands behind him (Source: Twitter.com)

Another photo shows Soleimani kissing Al-Muhamadawi on his forehead, a gesture that often indicates a parental relationship.


[1] Nasnews.com, February 20,2020. 

[2] 24.ae, February 20,2020.

[3] Nasnews.com, February 23,2020. 

[4] Al-akhbar.com, February 24, 2020. 

[5] Sotaliraq.com, February 24, 2020.

[6] Baghdadtoday.news, February 22, 2020.

[7] Twitter.com/abo_mzeal/status/1231308104337383427, February 22, 2020. 

[8] KataibHizbullah.com, February 22, 2020.

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