ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The deputy chairman of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) militias ordered on Wednesday the formation of a new air force branch following alleged Israeli drone strikes on Iran-backed militia groups within the PMF.
“Based on Diwani Order No. (79) of 2014… the powers vested in us and the interest of the public attributed us to form the Air Force Directorate,” read a document signed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Al-Ibrahim.
Muhandis, who is on the US' list of designated terrorists, has named Salah Mahdi Hantoush as acting director the air force. In 2012, Hantoush was designated as a global terrorist by the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
This comes amid an apparent dispute between Muhandis and his superior, PMF Chairman and Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyadh.
In the past two months, Israel has likely carried out up to five airstrikes on bases and weapons depots of a number of PMF militias closely tied to Iran. While Jerusalem has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made strong hints it was behind them.
On August 21, Muhandis, speaking on behalf of the PMF in a statement, directly accused Israel of conducting the airstrikes and said the US was also culpable, claiming American forces had transported four Israeli drones into Iraq and also stored them. Hours later, Fayyadh issued his own statement, saying Muhandis’ comments did not represent the official position of the Iraqi government.
Following this, Israeli aircraft carried out operations against Iranian and Iran-backed targets in Syria and Lebanon. In Iraq, it is alleged to have attacked a militia convoy belonging to the PMF’s Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militia lead by Muhandis that the US considers a terrorist organization.
It is not clear whether Muhandis consulted Fayyadh in the decision-making process to establish an air force. If not, as a security source explained to Kurdistan 24, the move would further highlight the rift between PMF factions whose ultimate loyalty is to Iran and the rest who answer to the Iraqi government to different degrees.
On July 1, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ordered that all PMF militias must integrate into the Iraqi military by the end of that month, not the first such attempt by an Iraqi leader to reign in the groups. The move seems to have had little effectiveness as was the case during the administration of former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
Iran-linked militias continually pledge allegiance to Tehran in case of an all-out war between the US and Iran as tensions between the two mounted a year after Washington withdrew from the international Iran nuclear deal.
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The source continued, adding that the differences were clear when Muhandis and other Iran loyalist PMF leaders missed a recent “important meeting” chaired by Fayyadh. The absentees had reportedly said they were on “family visits” in Iran and thus could not attend the meeting, but the source claimed that the real reason was “disputes” between the two sides.
It is still unclear whether the new PMF department would carry out its own aerial missions or if it would operate in coordination with the national air force. The Iraqi government and Fayyadh have yet to comment on the development.
Editing by John J. Catherine