In the Iraqi army and on social networks, he’s an icon. Abu Azrael, a Rambo-like Shiite militiaman, has helped push back the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq. Our reporters went to meet him.
Abu Azrael’s promise to reduce the Islamic State group jihadists to “dust” has become a rallying call for much of the Iraqi population. On the streets of Baghdad, it is repeated, chanted and proclaimed. Abu Azrael, literally “the father of the angel of death", has become a hero to many Iraqis. The militiaman’s face appears on T-shirts sold in Baghdad markets and everyone recognises him in the street.
His videos on YouTube have been viewed tens of thousands of times and hundreds of thousands of fans follow him on Facebook. The 37-year-old often appears with bulging biceps, armed to the teeth, smiling behind his thick beard or relentlessly shooting at enemy positions, without protection. Web users have nicknamed him "Iraq’s Rambo."
The Shiite vigilante, who took up arms ten years ago, had his moment of glory last March when the town of Tikrit was taken back from IS group jihadists. For much of the Iraqi population, he embodies hope. Politicians lacking credibility are keen to appear at his side, while the soldiers of the regular army take pictures with him when he visits them.
But the Iraqi “Rambo”, who was trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, belongs to a Tehran-backed militia which is accused of war crimes by Amnesty International.
We bring you a profile of Abu Azrael and a close look at the militias who are increasingly turning to a Shiite version of jihad.