Qassem Soliemani (left, green hat) and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis (right, black hat), touring the battlefield near Fallujah.
Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the leader of Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades) and also the umbrella Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), said that the second phase of the Fallujah operation will be launched “within a few hours.”
Muhandis made the statement today in a brief interview to a reporter from the Lebanese-Hezbollah-affiliated media outlet Al Manar. Muhandis claimed the Fallujah operation was proceeding as planned, with forces successfully capturing Karmah, located eight miles from Fallujah, and the strategic bridge of Sejrieh. Iraqi forces announced on May 24 that they had captured Karmah. Fallujah has been under Islamic State control since January 2014, while Karmah since April 2014.
Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Harakat al Nujaba also posted on its official Facebook page photographs of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, inspecting Karmah on May 24. Iranian news outlets reported that Soleimani discussed operational tactics with senior PMF leaders. Soleimani and Muhandis were also photographed inspecting Sejrieh.
In the interview with al Manar today, Muhandis voiced his opposition to US airstrikes in Fallujah, stressing that PMF has not requested nor needed them. Between May 24-26, the US launched 10 airstrikes against the Islamic State insupport of Iraqi military and militia operations in the Fallujah-Habbaniyah corridor, according to the Department of Defense. Targets of the US airstrikes included Islamic State bunkers, tactical units, tunnels, fighting positions, articllery, vehicles, and weapons caches.
Muhandis also claimed that Fallujah tribes support PMFs. Seeking to push back against “some media propaganda,” he said that his forces “fight terrorism and not the residents of the city.” Muhandis said upwards of 20,000 Sunnis are members of PMFs. He then noted that Iraqi Security Forces have started establishing a security barrier 30 kilometers south of Fallujah.
With regards to Iraqi Shia militias entering Fallujah proper, Muhandis said, “We will enter the city if requested.” He continued, “If we feel that our entry is needed in the fight in Fallujah city, we will support security and army forces and will not be restrained to the vicinity of the city.”
Iranian-backed militias have participated in multiple offensives to liberate Iraqi cities from the Islamic State. Despite US official’s denials, the Iranian-supported elements of the PMFs took part in efforts to eject the Islamic State from Tikrit, Baiji, Amerli, and Jurf al Sahkar. The militias often raised their banners in the city center after defeating the Islamic State.
Soleimani and Muhandis have been at the forefront in liberating those cities. After Iraqi military offensives failed, Soleimani and Muhandis organized the militias to play a key role in the fight. These victories have elevated the status of the PMF inside Iraq.
Militia commanders have been open about their goals in Iraq. Hamed al-Jazaeery, the commander of Saraya Khorasani, recently told The Associate Press that he wants the PMF to be “a third power in Iraq.”
“Why can’t the Hashd [PMF] be like the Revolutionary Guard in Iran?” Jazaeery asked.
The spokesman for Harakat al Nujaba recently said that his group and Hezbollah, Iran’s premiere proxy in the Middle East, are “the twins of resistance that cannot ever be loosened or separated.”
Meanwhile, Akram al Kaabi, the leader Harakat al Nujaba, made his allegiances clear. He said that he would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.