Iraq’s Shi­ite Rambo

The mys­te­ri­ous mus­cle-bound mili­tia­man tells Is­lamic State fighters: ‘You will be pul­ver­ized’

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Nabih Bu­los re­port­ing from bagh­dad

The men push for­ward, smartphones fly­ing back and forth as they en­list who­ever is clos­est to take their photo with the swarthy fig­ure at the front of the crowd. When it’s the next man’s turn, he ap­proaches with rev­er­ence, plant­ing a kiss on the cheek or fore­head of the mus­cle-bound man with the shaved head and jet-black bushy beard. An awk­ward pose, a quick snap, and it’s on to the next acolyte, al­ready in place.

Who is wor­thy of such at­ten­tion? A movie star? A chart-top­ping singer? Nope.

He’s Iraq’s most fa­mous Shi­ite mili­tia­man, a fierce war­rior whose nom de guerre — Abu Azrael — is an archangel of death in Is­lam. But the 37-year-old has an­other nick­name: the “Iraqi Rambo.”

He is the scourge of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, who last year ram­paged across large parts of Iraq and Syria. He taunts and mocks the Sunni ex­trem­ists on so­cial me­dia, say­ing he has dis­patched them in droves with an ar­se­nal that would sat­isfy any video-game afi­cionado: a scoped ri­fle, hand gre-

nades and, when things get dicey, an ax or sword.

His Face­book pages have gar­nered well over 300,000 “likes,” and his YouTube videos rack up hun­dreds of thou­sands — and oc­ca­sion­ally mil­lions — of views. (His pres­ence at a re­cent fu­neral for a high-rank­ing mili­tia leader al­most derailed the somber pro­ceed­ings.)

Con­va­lesc­ing in Bagh­dad af­ter a bat­tle­field in­jury sus­tained dur­ing the gov­ern­ment’s lat­est of­fen­sive on the city of Tikrit — “a shell blast threw me off the ar­mored car­rier I was on,” he ex­plains as he non­cha­lantly ges­tures to the cast on his right arm — Abu Azrael con­sents to a sit­down in­ter­view.

It’s a tightly choreographed af­fair, mon­i­tored by a me­dia team from his mili­tia, the Imam Ali Brigades, that would make any Hol­ly­wood PR firm proud.

“When the Iraqi peo­ple came un­der attack, I de­cided to leave my work and be­come a war­rior to de­fend them,” he be­gins, de­scrib­ing him­self as a “sim­ple man who wanted to fight the evil of Daesh,” the Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State. And though those on the re­ceiv­ing end of his lethal blows (not to men­tion taunts) are Sun­nis, he re­jects ac­cu­sa­tions that he’s en­cour­ag­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism.

Like your av­er­age ac­tion hero, his iden­tity is shrouded in mys­tery. He ac­knowl­edges lit­tle more than be­ing a “gen­tle fa­ther” to four daugh­ters and a son.

And what does he do when he’s not fight­ing Is­lamic State? Is he, as some be­lieve, a uni­ver­sity lec­turer in Is­lamic stud­ies, or a fit­ness in­struc­tor who once won a taek­wondo tour­na­ment, or, as he claims, a sim­ple state em­ployee who moon­lights as a muezzin at his lo­cal mosque?

And what about his real name? Is it Ayy­oub Faleh al-Rubaie or Ayy­oub alZer­jawi, only two of the names he has given to the press?

Abu Azrael won’t say, and with his men­ac­ing stare (not to men­tion the ser­rated mil­i­tary knife at his side), one doesn’t like to be pushy.

The se­crecy, we’re in­formed, is to pro­tect the fighter and his fam­ily from the many threats lev­eled against him by fu­ri­ous Is­lamic State sup­port­ers, who post grue­some videos of pro-gov­ern­ment mili­ti­a­men killed in bat­tles with the taunt­ing hash­tag #Where_Are_You_Abu_Azrael?

He won’t con­firm news re­ports that he be­gan fight­ing in 2003 as part of the Mahdi Army, the mili­tia of the Shi­ite cleric Muq­tada Sadr, which fought against U.S. troops dur­ing the Iraq war. Nei­ther will he ad­mit fight­ing in Syria along­side forces loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

He does, how­ever, say that he first took the name Abu Azrael in 2003 be­cause the an­gel of death meets “an evil per­son with bru­tal­ity, and I wanted to meet those ter­ror­ists in that way.”

The Iraqi gov­ern­ment and Shi­ite mili­tias have long bat­tled a Sunni in­sur­gency that has ap­peared un­der dif­fer­ent guises (in­clud­ing Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Is­lamic State in Iraq, the pre­cur­sor to Is­lamic State). What­ever the name, pro­gov­ern­ment me­dia rou­tinely de­scribe the mil­i­tants as “ter­ror­ists.”

Abu Azrael, how­ever, has dif­fer­ent words for his enemies: “illa tahin ,” an ab­bre­vi­ated re­li­gious quote that lit­er­ally trans­lates to “noth­ing but flour” but means “you will be pul­ver­ized.” It has be­come the catch­phrase he de­ploys when­ever faced by Is­lamic State and its sup­port­ers.

Abu Azrael de­cided to join the Imam Ali Brigades, he says, be­cause of the group’s “wise and re­li­gious lead­er­ship” and be­cause he ad­mired its in­te­gra­tion of other sects into its ranks, such as anti-mil­i­tant Sunni tribes­men and Yazidis.

“Other groups were at first re­luc­tant to do so,” he says. “Now they have come to fol­low our way of think­ing.”

The gov­ern­ment has trum­peted the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Sunni tribal fighters in its re­cent of­fen­sive on Salahud­din prov­ince as a re­sponse to con­cern about a sec­tar­ian blood­bath by the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated armed forces.

Last year, Iraq’s top Shi­ite cleric ex­horted fol­low­ers to join mili­tias and prop up the coun­try’s armed forces, which had col­lapsed af­ter a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat at the hands of Is­lamic State.

Although the mili­tias were cred­ited with sav­ing Bagh­dad from be­ing over­run by the mil­i­tant group, many feared a re­turn of the Shi­ite death squads who en­gaged in reprisals against Sun­nis dur­ing the sec­tar­ian blood­let­ting in 2006-07.

Back then, Shi­ites had a dif­fer­ent hero: Abu Deraa, a Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary leader. Abu Deraa’s raids on Sunni neigh­bor­hoods and his pen­chant for drilling holes in the heads of Sunni cap­tives earned him the moniker “the Shi­ite Zar­qawi,” a ref­er­ence to the Jor­da­ni­an­born Sunni head of Al Qaeda in Iraq re­spon­si­ble for or­ga­niz­ing vi­cious sui­cide bomb­ings against Shi­ites.

Abu Azrael in­sists that he shuns sec­tar­i­an­ism and that he and his com­rades in the mili­tias are holy war­riors fight­ing to de­fend the op­pressed against those who “kill and pil­lage in the name of Mus­lims.”

“I’m here to talk about ter­ror­ism. Any per­son who em­braces Daesh, no mat­ter what his reli­gion may be, I will con­sider him a ter­ror­ist.”

Aside from his boasts about his fight­ing prow­ess, Abu Azrael is known for his gal­lows-in­flected sense of hu­mor.

In his best-known video, re­leased in Jan­uary, he’s seen rid­ing on a chil­dren’s bi­cy­cle through a Sun­nidom­i­nated area pre­sum­ably once packed with Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and sup­port­ers, now ren­dered a ghost town.

“What a ro­man­tic set­ting! This is your brother Abu Azrael roam­ing around the city of the dead,” he says, flash­ing a toothy grin as the cam­era pans over the car­cass of a dog.

“If we weren’t good­hearted peo­ple, we would have burned your houses down to the ground,” he goads the town’s ab­sent res­i­dents-turned-refugees, adding that only houses with Is­lamic State flags were razed.

Abu Azrael ex­plains that the video was shot in a Sunni area called Albu Hish­meh about 45 miles north of Bagh­dad, the site of in­tense clashes be­tween Imam Ali Brigade and Is­lamic State fighters in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary.

“This was me mock­ing th­ese ter­ror­ists. They are noth­ing, be­cause our sol­diers are he­roes.”

‘I’m here to talk about ter­ror­ism. Any per­son who em­braces Daesh, no mat­ter what his reli­gion may be, I will con­sider him a ter­ror­ist.’

— Abu Azrael, a Shi­ite mili­tia­man also known as the “Iraqi Rambo”

Although he’s swarmed by fans ev­ery­where he goes, not ev­ery­one is happy about the fo­cus on a fighter with a per­son­al­ity as out­sized as his mus­cles.

“He’s a hero,” says Ab­bass, a traf­fic po­lice­man sit­ting down to break­fast in a Bagh­dad road­side cafe.

“No, he’s not,” re­torts an­other of­fi­cer be­tween mouth­fuls of the omelet be­fore him.

“He gets to have the best food, best weapons. But what about the he­roes in the army and the po­lice?”

He shakes his head. “No one cares about them. They get noth­ing, and they’ve done more than Abu Azrael.”

As Abu Azrael’s fame has grown, he has be­come a sym­bol for fel­low mili­ti­a­men, boost­ing morale when­ever he shows up at a battle. Does he worry about be­ing even more of a tar­get now for the ex­trem­ists?

“If it’s a mat­ter of fear, I’m a fighter in God’s name and I fear noth­ing,” he says de­fi­antly. “But of course I’m con­cerned for my fam­ily.”

Although the battle for Salahud­din con­tin­ues, all eyes re­main on Mo­sul, 225 miles north of Bagh­dad and the jewel in Is­lamic State’s crown. Ob­servers ex­pect the gov­ern­ment will have a much harder fight on its hands.

Abu Azrael, how­ever, in­sists he isn’t wor­ried.

“Dif­fi­cult, not dif­fi­cult, we will be vic­to­ri­ous, even if it re­quires the last drop of our peo­ple’s blood,” he de­clares.

“There is no other op­tion, and mar­tyr­dom for us is honor from God.”

And what of the time af­ter Is­lamic State is van­quished? Will he join the army or en­list in some kind of a na­tional guard brigade?

Not for him the mil­i­tary life, says Abu Azrael, speak­ing wist­fully of re­turn­ing to his gov­ern­ment po­si­tion, send­ing his chil­dren to school and go­ing back to the mosque to is­sue the call to prayer.

“I’m a civil­ian who was tasked by God to fight. Once that ends I will go back to my nor­mal life,” he says. “And if they re­turn, we will too. Illa tahin !”

W.G. Dun­lop AFP/Getty Images

LIKE MANY ac­tion he­roes, Abu Azrael keeps his true iden­tity un­der wraps.

Nabih Bu­los For The Times

THE SHI­ITE FIGHTER who calls him­self Abu Azrael, seen with a fan in Bagh­dad, in­sists that he shuns sec­tar­i­an­ism and is bat­tling to de­fend the op­pressed.

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