Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a specially designated global terrorist who directs the Popular Mobilization Forces (left) and Akram al Kaabi, the Secretary General of Harakat al Nujaba (right). Photograph from Harakat al Nujaba’s website.
Akram al Kaabi, the leader of the Iranian-supported Harakat al Nujaba militia that is based in Iraq and is an integral part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, has said that he would and could depose the Iraqi government if ordered to do so by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. He also said that he and his group take political and religious guidance from Khamenei, and not Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric.
The militia commander, who is listed by the US as an individual who threatens the security of Iraq and remains hostile to the US, was photographed in Syria’s Aleppo province just days ago. Kaabi was there to direct an operation in coordination with Iranian and Syrian forces. He arrived in Syria just days after meeting with the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, who takes direction from Iran’s Qods Force.
Kaabi made the statements in two interviews, one with Al Sumariyah Television on Nov. 4 and another with Biladi Channel on Nov. 7. Translations of the interviews were obtained by The Long War Journal.
Kaabi stated in the Nov. 7 interview that he and his militia take guidance from Khamenei, who provides “our [Harakat al Nujaba’s] source of leadership” and guides its political affairs. He reinforced this when he stated that his fighters, who are currently engaged on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, are prepared to fight alongside Iranian-supported Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen if Iran’s supreme leader deemed it to be a “religious duty.”
In the Nov. 4 interview, Kaabi was asked if the Popular Mobilization Forces were plotting a coup against the Iraqi government. He denied it, but said that the militias would do so with “the religious authorities’ permission.”
“[T]he PMF cannot stage a coup unless a religious authority makes a decision to change the rule in Iraq,” he responded. “If a religious authority decides, we rely on Allah and go ahead. It would be normal for us to implement.”
When asked if the Popular Mobilization Forces are capable of overthrowing the Iraqi government, he said while laughing, “Of course we can. If a religious authority decides, we apply.”
Kaabi said the Popular Mobilization Forces are “the strongest military establishment in Iraq” and “capable of making a change,” or overthrowing the government.
He said that “the Iraqi system of governance does not meet our ambitions as Islamists,” because it is “secular.” But he added that it would be counterproductive to overthrow the Iraqi government at this time.
Kaabi also heaped praise on Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force, Iran’s special operations branch that supports the Iraqi militias.
“Qassem Soleimani has a basic and important role in the relations among the resistance factions and in supporting the Popular Mobilization Forces,” he said. “Qassem Soleimani represents Islam and Muslims” and not just Iran.
“He [Soleimani] represents the ruler of Muslims, one of the senior Shiite authorities, and one of the great authorities of Muslims,” he continued, referring to Khamenei.
Soleimani’s influence with the militias is highlighted by his connections to Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former commander in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as a specially designated global terrorist in July 2009. The US government described Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani.” Muhandis is the operational leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Kaabi spotted on important Syrian battlefield
Just days after Kaabi’s interviews were published, he met with Muhandis at Harakat al Nujaba’s headquarters in Iraq on Nov. 8. While the details of the meeting were not disclosed, Kaabi was dispatched to Syria to help President Bashar al Assad’s forces break the Islamic State’s siege of the Kweiris air base in Aleppo province. Three days later, on Nov. 11, Harakat al Nujaba published a photograph of Kaabi in military dress, purportedly in Syria. (See photograph on the right.)
The Kweiris offensive was backed by fighters from Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (Syrian pro-Assad militias), militias from Iraq, including Harakat al Nujaba, and Iranian troops. Militia groups comprised of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are reported to have participated in the fighting as well. [For more information, see LWJ report, Assad regime, allies break Islamic State’s siege of air base in Aleppo.]
On its website, Harakat al Nujaba said that “Sheikh Akram al Kaabi entered Aleppo to head a massive force of large reinforcements to lift the siege of Kafraya and al Fua.” The two towns are the regime’s last enclaves in Idlib province and have been under siege by rebels and jihadists, as the latter groups try to consolidate their control over the northwestern province. Additionally, the Shiite militia reports that “nine villages [in Aleppo] have been freed since operations began.”
Harakat al Nujaba has been deployed in Aleppo for some time. The militia’s efforts have received the attention of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Just last month, Soleimani was photographed with fighters from Harakat al Nujaba in Aleppo. On its official Facebook page, Harakat Nujaba said that “Al Hajj Qassem Soleimani oversees the conduct of the battles, which [are] being waged by the champions of the Islamic Resistance Harakat al Nujaba in Aleppo, Syria.”
Harakat al Nujaba is hostile to the US
In Kaabi’s interviews, he was openly hostile to the United States, which he described as an “enemy” on par with the Islamic State.
“We should not have such an alliance because America is corrupt in every detail,” he stated. “America and Daesh [pejorative term for the Islamic State] are two faces of the same coin.”
“My enemy’s enemy cannot be my friend if he is already my enemy,” Kaabi continued. “America is an enemy.”
Kaabi’s hatred towards the US goes back at least a decade, when he was a commander in Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In 2008, the US government listed Kaabi as an individual who threatens the security of Iraq under Executive Order 13438. Also listed along with Kaabi was Abdul Reza Shahlai, a Qods Froce commander.
The US government said that Kaabi was behind multiple mortar and rocket attacks against the International Zone, or Green Zone, in Baghdad in early 2008. He also financed roadside bomb attacks and recruitment for the Mahdi Army.
Kaabi directed attacks against US and Iraqi forces during the so-called Mahdi ceasefire imposed by Sadr. He provided weapons “for large-scale military operations against Coalition Forces” in early 2008. While not stated, Kaabi likely aided the Mahdi Army in attacking US and Iraqi troops as they built the security barrier around a large segment of Sadr City. More than 1,000 Mahdi Army fighters were killed during the fighting in Baghdad from April until the Mahdi Army quit the fight in June.
Despite the involvement of individuals like Kaabi and Muhandis in the Popular Mobilization Forces, US officials continue to heap praise on the Iranian-backed militias and provide air support for their efforts against the Islamic State. Brett McGurk, the Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (another acronym for the Islamic State), did so most recently in October, when the Popular Mobilization Forces led the fight to retake the central Iraqi town of Baiji.