'Iraq’s Rambo' holidays in Iran… and gets rockstar treatment

Abu Azrael and Abu Hor, an Iranian member of his militia, pose with two people in Noshahr, in Iran.
Abu Azrael and Abu Hor, an Iranian member of his militia, pose with two people in Noshahr, in Iran.

The brutal Iraqi Shia militia, the Imam Ali Brigades, has gotten a lot of publicity out of its quasi-mythic commander, “Abu Azrael”. Nicknamed “Iraq’s Rambo”, this man’s savagery on the battlefield against the Islamic State (IS) group is famous. But recently, photos surfaced showing Abu Azrael getting rockstar treatment while on vacation in Iran.

Even though he’s internationally famous for his ultra-violent actions in war, Abu Azrael was treated like a movie star by people who recognised him during his trip to Iran and were eager to take selfies.

While on his trip, Abu Azrael visited the Iranian capital, Tehran, as well as Noshahr, a beautiful seaside city in northern Iran, and Mashhad, the holiest city in Iran for the Shia. He’s been traveling with “Abu Hor”, an Iranian member of his brigade.

But his visit wasn’t just sightseeing. He also participated in some religious assemblies and visited some high-level Shia clergy, including Alamolhoda, the very hardline Imam of Mashhad.

These activities reflect his strong connections to Iran. Like most of the Iraqi Shia militia in Iraq, the “Imam Ali Brigades” are part of a group of “Popular Mobilisation Forces” that is heavily under the control of Iran Quds Forces, a special unit in charge of Iran’s extraterritorial operations. Iran is one of the main logistic supporters of these Shia militias in the war against the IS group.

This video of Abu Azrael was filmed in Iraq. In it, however, he repeats a Shiite religious chant in Persian, further demonstrating his connections to Iran.

Head of a militia known for war crimes

“Abu Azrael” means “the father of the angel of death" in Arabic.

According to Iranian media, Abu Azrael’s real name is Ayoub Faleh Al-Rabieia and he is 40 years old. After studying sports, he went on to become a university lecturer and a Taekwondo champion. In 2014, he joined the Iraqi Shia forces after Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani made an appeal for mobilisation against the Islamic State organisation. He is thought to have helped to form the Imam Ali brigades and now serves as its commander.

The Observers has published several articles testifying to the brutality of the Imam Ali Brigades including amateur videos that document what are essentially war crimes. In a video filmed in July 2014 in the Amerli region, Imam Ali Brigade’s members flaunted the decapitated heads of Islamic State fighters.

Another video, published by the “Imam Ali brigades” in 2015, shows its fighters standing in front of a man being suspended over a fire with his arms and legs bound. From the footage, it’s unclear if the man is still alive or not.

FRANCE 24's report : "Meet Abu Azrael, ‘Iraq’s Rambo’, the most reknown fighter in Iraq"