Iraqi National Killed In Ukraine Was Recruited From Prison By Russian Wagner Group; Iran-Backed Pro-Russia Outlet Decries Claim As 'Western Propaganda'

June 1, 2023

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On May 31, 2023, Telegram channels affiliated with Iran-backed militias in Iraq eulogized an Iraqi national, Abbas Abu Dharr Witwit, who was killed on April 7 while fighting with the Russian Wagner Group in Bakhmut, Ukraine.[1] The channels cited a video, released by Russia's RIA FAN news agency, which showed a Wagner Group representative presenting a medal of honor and ribbon to Witwit's father. Speaking in Arabic, Witwit's father can be heard in the video praising his son, saying: "He was a hero, and he died like a hero, for the sake of freedom, a multipolar world, and against the [powers] of arrogance." In response to a request for comment by Reuters News Agency, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin confirmed Witwit's death, saying that he had recruited Witwit from prison.[2] Witwit's death is the first confirmed case of a Middle Eastern fighter dying in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Witwit Recruited By Wagner Group From Russian Prison

Russian court records substantiate Prigozhin's claims about Witwit's incarceration, showing that Witwit was sentenced by a court in the Russian city of Kazan in July 2021 to serve four and a half years in prison on drug charges. The Russian Wagner Group is a known for its practice of recruiting prisoners serving sentences in Russian correctional facilities.[3]

Russian court record about Witwit's case.

Iraqi Shi'ite Cleric: Witwit Was Coerced By Wagner Group, Iran-Backed Militia Channels Attempting To "Plunge Iraq's Shi'ites Into A Conflict In Which They Have No Interest"

On March 31, Muhammad Jawad Shubbar, an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, published a Facebook post claiming to provide additional details about Witwit's recruitment in prison, based on a conversation with an alleged relative who said Witwit was coerced into fighting with the Wagner Group.[4] Shubbar also criticized Telegram channels affiliated with Iran-backed militias for attempting to create the perception that Iraqi Shi'ites are fighting with Russia.

In the Facebook post, Shubbar wrote: "[Witwit] went to Russia to study and was imprisoned because of a quarrel with a police officer. More than a month into his incarceration, they told him that the condition for his release was to fight in the ranks of the Wagner Group for three months. So, he was coerced to go and was killed, and this morning he was buried in Najaf. Then a media outlet – the source, funding, and management of which is unclear – comes and spreads news with this wording to create a public opinion that Iraqi Shi'ite groups are fighting alongside Putin in order to plunge the Shi'ites of Iraq into a conflict in which they have no interest!"

Shubbar's post on Facebook.

A conversation between Shubbar and an alleged relative of Witwit, which Shubbar shared on Facebook.

Putin's Friends In Iraq Telegram Channel: Claims That Witwit Was Incarcerated Are "Western Propaganda"

In response to Shubbar's post, "Putin's Friends in Iraq," a Telegram channel that shares pro-Russia posts, denied that Witwit was imprisoned in Russia and threatened Shubbar for "spreading lies on behalf of the axis of America."[5]

In a Telegram post, the channel cited the RIA FAN video showing a Wagner representative presenting a medal and ribbon to Witwit's father as evidence refuting Shubbar's claims, writing: "the video of the martyr's father is enough to debunk the fake news that has spread about the martyr being imprisoned."

It also accused Shubbar of being a "liar" working on behalf of the "British-American agendas in Iraq" and threatened "legal and social" actions against him for "spreading lies on behalf of the axis of America."

"In brief, I think these are dirty insinuations that stain the memory of the late hero. The aim of this attack is to distort the image of the hero and portray him as someone who 'fought on the side of evil and was himself a criminal.' I do not think it was a Shi'ite attack. [Rather] it was more like Western propaganda," the post concluded.




[4] Facebook, May 31, 2023.

[5] Telegram, May 31, 2023.

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