Hussein Falih Aziz a.k.a. Abu Zainab al-Lami

Hussein Falih Aziz, a.k.a. Abu Zainab al-Lami, is a U.S.-designated senior Iraqi military officer and security chief of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed, “Exclusive: Iraq trains U.S.-sanctioned militia leader for army position – sources,” Reuters, November 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-politics-militias-exclusive-idCAKBN286286; “SPECIALLY DESIGNATED NATIONALS LIST UPDATE,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/recent-actions/20191206. Aziz is also a former member of Iran-backed Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, though he reportedly denies any formal ties to Iran or its militias.“Iraq Trains US-sanctioned ‘PMF’ Leader,” Asharq al-Awsat, November 28, 2020, https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/2651536/iraq-trains-us-sanctioned-pmf-leader. The U.S. government accuses Aziz of complicity in the PMF’s killing of protesters in Baghdad in October 2019.“Treasury Sanctions Iran-Backed Militia Leaders Who Killed Innocent Demonstrators in Iraq,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/index.php/news/press-releases/sm847.

Aziz is director of the PMF’s Central Security Directorate, which maintains its own intelligence and military forces. The unit acts as an internal affairs branch and is authorized to discipline PMF leaders.Michael Knights, “Iran’s Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups,” CTC Sentinel, August 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2019/08/CTC-SENTINEL-072019.pdf. Some analysts postulated that Lami was being groomed to eventually replace PMF deputy commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who also led KH.Michael Knights, “Iran’s Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups,” CTC Sentinel, August 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2019/08/CTC-SENTINEL-072019.pdf; Lara Jakes, “U.S. Seeks to Punish Iraqi Militias That Targeted Protesters With Iran’s Help,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/us/politics/iraq-iran-sanctions.html. Ibrahimi died in a January 3, 2020, U.S. airstrike in Iraq that also killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.Frank Miles, “Baghdad rocket attack kills Iranian military leaders including Gen. Qassim Soleimani, reports say,” Fox News, January 2, 2020,  https://www.foxnews.com/world/rockets-baghdad-airport-injuries-reported. The PMF is directly supported by Iran. As the PMF’s security director, Aziz had direct contact with Soleimani.Michael Knights, “Iran’s Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups,” CTC Sentinel, August 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2019/08/CTC-SENTINEL-072019.pdf; Lara Jakes, “U.S. Seeks to Punish Iraqi Militias That Targeted Protesters With Iran’s Help,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/us/politics/iraq-iran-sanctions.html.

According to the Department of the Treasury, Aziz was responsible for, complicit in, or directly or indirectly engaged in “serious human rights abuse.”“Treasury Sanctions Iran-Backed Militia Leaders Who Killed Innocent Demonstrators in Iraq,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/index.php/news/press-releases/sm847. In 2017, Aziz reportedly supervised a secret PMF prison in Iraq holding ISIS members and other largely Sunni prisoners. Prisoners alleged torture and mass killings in the prison under his watch. Iranian officers also allegedly oversaw the prison.“Exclusive: Destination of IMIS prison filled with Iraqi Sunnis revealed,” Baghdad Post, March 7, 2017, https://www.thebaghdadpost.com/en/Story/7839/Exclusive-Destination-of-IMIS-prison-filled-with-Iraqi-Sunnis-revealed. The U.S. government sanction-designated Aziz in December 2019 for his role in violently quelling protests in Baghdad in October 2019.“Treasury Sanctions Iran-Backed Militia Leaders Who Killed Innocent Demonstrators in Iraq,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/index.php/news/press-releases/sm847.

On October 1, 2019, Iraqis began protesting in the streets of Baghdad against public corruption and unemployment. They also accused Iran of interfering in Iraqi affairs. Security forces opened fire on the protesters when they attempted to enter the Green Zone, prompting the protests to spread around Iraq.“The Iraq protests explained in 100 and 500 words,” BBC News, December 2, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50595212. At least 400 protesters died in the first two months of the protests, leading Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign on November 30, 2019.Alissa J. Rubin and Falih Hassan, “Iraqi Prime Minister Resigns in Deepening Political Crisis,” New York Times, November 30, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/world/middleeast/adel-abdul-mahdi-resigns-iraq.html. According to the U.S. government, Aziz directed PMF fighters to shoot anti-government protesters in Baghdad in October 2019, resulting in dozens of deaths. That December, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned Aziz under Executive Order 13818, claiming he is “responsible for, is complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in serious human rights abuse.”“Treasury Sanctions Iran-Backed Militia Leaders Who Killed Innocent Demonstrators in Iraq,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm847. Aziz has denied killing peaceful protesters.“Iraq Trains US-sanctioned ‘PMF’ Leader,” Asharq al-Awsat, November 28, 2020, https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/2651536/iraq-trains-us-sanctioned-pmf-leader. Despite the change in Iraq’s government, anti-corruption protests have continued throughout 2020.“Six dead in clashes between rival protesters in southern Iraq,” Al Jazeera, November 28, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/28/six-dead-in-clashes-among-rival-protesters-in-southern-iraq; “Iraqi leader calls for end to violence in Sulaymaniyah protests,” Al Jazeera, December 8, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/8/iraqi-leader-calls-for-end-to-violence-in-sulaymaniyah-protests.

On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi issued a decree ordering the militias of the PMF to choose between full integration into the Iraqi armed forces or disarmament by July 31. The prime minister’s decree stated that the PMF factions had to choose between either political or paramilitary activity, and if they choose politics they would not be allowed to carry weapons.Jared Szuba, “Mahdi orders full integration of Shia militias into Iraq’s armed forces,” July 3, 2019, https://thedefensepost.com/2019/07/03/iraq-mahdi-orders-popular-mobilization-units-integration/.; “Shia militia agrees to integrate into Iraq state army,” Middle East Monitor, July 3, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190703-shia-militia-agrees-to-integrate-into-iraq-state-army/. The decree was an attempt by Abdul Mahdi at curtailing the autonomy of Iranian-backed militias, which boast more than 120,000 fighters.Isabel Coles in Beirut and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S.: Saudi Pipeline Attacks Originated From Iraq,” Washington Post, June 28, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-saudi-pipeline-attacks-originated-from-iraq-11561741133. The decree included a reorganization of the PMF that would have seen Aziz become a deputy to Iraq’s interior minister.Suadad al-Salhy, “Revealed: How Baghdad plans to rein in Iran,” Arab News, July 13, 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1525156/middle-east. Abdul Mahdi issued a new decree in September 2019 that restructured the PMF’s leadership.Fadhel al-Nashmi, “Iraqi PM Issues New order on PMF Restructuring,” Asharq al-Awsat (London), September 22, 2020, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1913381/iraqi-pm-issues-new-order-pmf-restructuring. As of December 2019, Aziz remained in his role as the PMF’s security chief.John Davison and Daphne Psaledakis, “Washington blacklists Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders over protests,” Reuters, December 6, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-usa-iraq-sanctions/washington-blacklists-iran-backed-iraqi-militia-leaders-over-protests-idUSKBN1YA206.

In November 2020, the Iraqi military bestowed the rank of major-general upon Aziz and sent him to Egypt for a year-long military training course. The training is typically reserved for Iraqi military leaders. The Iraqi government reportedly seeks to restructure the PMF by providing military training to its leaders in a bid to weaken the militias that comprise the PMF. An unnamed Iraqi official told Reuters that Aziz will receive a senior position upon completion of his training. Sheikh Ali al-Asadi, an official in the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia, claimed Aziz’s selection for the training demonstrated the PMF’s strength.John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed, “Exclusive: Iraq trains U.S.-sanctioned militia leader for army position – sources,” Reuters, November 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-politics-militias-exclusive-idCAKBN286286.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated “Husayn Falih ‘Aziz al-Lami” pursuant to Executive Order 13818 on December 6, 2019.“SPECIALLY DESIGNATED NATIONALS LIST UPDATE,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/recent-actions/20191206.

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