By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team
Key Take-Away: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi made his boldest move against Iranian proxy militias yet by appointing a retired Federal Police general, Mohsen al-Kaabi, as Deputy Chairman for Financial, Administrative, and Operations Affairs in the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC), the government body that officially has authority over the Popular Mobilization. The move attempts to undermine one of the most senior Iranian proxy leaders and PM Abadi’s most prominent opponents, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a designated U.S. terrorist who serves as the more senior Deputy Chairman of the PMC. Unspecified infuriated proxy militias threatened Kaabi in response to the appointment. Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the most lethal proxy militias that Muhandis helped create, sent a thinly veiled threat to Kaabi through a statement expressing gratitude for Kaabi resigning from his post despite Kaabi making no indication of stepping down. Muhandis and Faleh al-Fayadh, the PMC chairman and another proxy militia figure, later visited PM Abadi with Kaabi present on February 22, likely another threat against both Kaabi and PM Abadi. The confrontation comes at a time when tensions are high, particularly as PM Abadi and the U.S. attempt to exclude the Popular Mobilization from joining the forces deploying to southwestern Arbil Province in preparation for a future Mosul operation. Iranian proxy militias will likely continue to threaten and may even attempt to assassinate Kaabi to protect their access to the PMC’s resources. These militias may also place greater political pressure on PM Abadi during the ongoing cabinet reshuffle to further limit his power or remove him from his post. The Popular Mobilization could also withdraw their fighters from the frontlines in areas like northern Salah al-Din and eastern Anbar, forcing the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to redeploy away from forward operations in order to re-secure these areas. PM Abadi’s appears to be undertaking a bold attempt to undercut the proxy militias, but he remains extremely weak and beholden to the whims of the political blocs. His survivability in office will rapidly diminish if his actions convince the proxy militias to move against him in earnest.