Iraq’s Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia on Thursday arrested the leader of the Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade, Aws al-Khafaji, after he repeatedly criticized policies of neighboring Iran in his country.
A group of Hashd al-Shaabi fighters, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), stormed the headquarters of the Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade in Baghdad’s Karrada district and arrested Khafaji.
Khafaji has long criticized Iran’s policies in Iraq and has repeatedly expressed disapproval of local clerics and leaders “exaggerating” in their defense of Iran. He has also been vocal about Iraq’s sovereignty needing to be “preserved and respected.”
The Shia militia leader’s arrest came days after he appeared on a local Iraqi television channel to talk about Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub, who was from his tribe, and his assassinaiton in Karbala for “anti-Iranian writings” by those who “defend Tehran in the country,” without offering any names.
Late Thursday evening, the PMF released a statement on its website, saying its fighters had closed four headquarters “pretending to belong to the PMF” in the Karrada district of central Baghdad
“This move came after a meeting by security heads of the Hashd al-Shaabi with the municipality of Karrada and security forces to close headquarters claiming to belong to the Hashd al-Shaabi,” the statement read.
The PMF mentioned that among the offices “were headquarters of the so-called Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade administered by Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji located in the center a residential area in Karrada.”
The militia group noted that its fighters “tried to shut down the unauthorized headquarter, but those who were present there refrained us from doing so, and disciplinary action had to be taken against them.”
It is not clear whether Khafaji’s arrest is linked to his recent anti-Iran statements or his alleged affiliation to the headquarters being targeted.
Khafaji himself is not an outspoken opponent of Iran, but his perspectives in that regard are very similar to those adopted by influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Khafaji was once part of Sadr’s movement before he and many of Sadr's associates were separated in the wake of sectarian violence that swept the country in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Khafaji founded an armed faction in 2012 to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his opponents.
Following the 2014 rise of the Islamic State, his brigade fought in fierce battles in al-Tharthar, Salahuddin, Ramadi, and Fallujah.