ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said late Wednesday that he would oppose the federal government if it does not act against a recent disputed order by Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militias, also called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), to form an air force branch of their own.
“If the government does not crack down, I declare my disownment” of it, Sadr tweeted, in an apparent response to a document circulated online earlier that day that was signed by PMF Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis that ordered the establishment of an “Air Force Directorate” for the militia groups.
Sadr did not mention Muhandis by name, but said that the move represented “a declaration of the end of the Iraqi government and a shift from a state that is controlled by law to a state of chaos.”
The firebrand cleric, the head of one of two leading coalitions in the Iraqi parliament, is an influential figure in national politics. He has long called for the integration of PMF militias into Iraq’s security apparatus.
This comes as a rift among the militia groups now highlighting their ultimate loyalties is becoming a greater issue on the national stage.
Muhandis, close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), named Salah Mahdi Hantoush as acting director the air force. Both men are designated as global terrorists by the US.
Following the order, the official PMF webpage said it had not sought the formation of an “airforce command” for its paramilitary groups. PMF chairman and Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyadh has previously disputed statements of Muhandis, although both have claimed to speak on behalf of the militias.
A source familiar with the issue stated on Thursday that the letter ordering the creation of the military force was an authentic PMF document but that Muhandis had made the decision “unilaterally,” meaning he had not consulted Fayyadh.
In late August, Muhandis claimed in a PMF statement that Israel was responsible for recent airstrikes on militia facilities in Iraq and said the US was also culpable, claiming its forces had transported four Israeli drones into the country.
Hours later, Fayyadh issued his own statement, saying Muhandis’ comments did not represent the official position of the Iraqi government.
Editing by John J. Catherine