On December 13, forces associated with the Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) raided the headquarters of Saraya al-Khorasani, a militia that until recently was affiliated with the PMU. Several of the group’s leaders were arrested, including its deputy secretary-general and military commander, Hamid al-Jazaeri (The National, December 19, 2020). Al-Jazaeri has been a prominent militia leader in Iraq since the rise of the Islamic State, and has long maintained substantial contacts with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF). His arrest follows a months-long decline in standing within the PMU, which followed his role in suppressing a widespread protest movement that began in October 2019 and larger attempts by Baghdad to rein in the PMU militias.
Al-Jazaeri, who is believed to be in his late 40s or early 50s, is from the area around the city of Basra. A longtime insurgent, al-Jazaeri is believed to have spent much of the 1990s exiled in Iran, from where he regularly infiltrated into Iraq to conduct operations against the government of Saddam Hussein (see MLM, August 2, 2016). From exile in 1995, al-Jazaeri and Seyed Ali al-Yaseri, the future secretary-general of Saraya al-Khorasani, founded Hizb al-Tali’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Vanguard Party). This party would be officially established in Iraq following the overthrow of the Hussein government in 2003 by U.S.-led coalition forces (francesoir.fr, June 3, 2017).
The formation of Saraya al-Khorasani was announced on September 2013. Like many other Shia militias, al-Jazaeri and al-Yaseri were motivated to serve the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by defending the Bashir al-Assad regime and protecting the Sayyida Zaynab shrine, a Shia holy site located in Damascus. Saraya al-Khorasani forces reportedly fought rebel factions near the shrine and in rural areas around Damascus (Jihadology, October 29, 2013).
The militia quickly shifted back to Iraq following Islamic State’s (IS) rapid seizure of territory in early 2014. Saraya al-Khorasani fighters participated in breaking IS’ siege on Amerli, in northeastern Iraq, and were recorded taking part in fighting in Diyala, Salah ad Din, Anbar and Kirkuk provinces. The militia was accused of human rights violations while operating in Diyala and Salah ad Din, ransacking and burning down Sunni villages (Human Rights Watch, November 4, 2014; Human Rights Watch, March 18, 2015).
Al-Jazaeri and Saraya al-Khorasani are intimately connected to the IRGC-QF. Al-Jazaeri had close connections to the IRGC-QF General Hamid Taghavi, who was advising Saraya al-Khorasani when he was killed by IS fighters outside Samarra in December 2014 (al-Monitor, January 11, 2015). Al-Jazaeri was also photographed with the late Qasem Soleimani, the former IRGC-QF commander. Al-Jazaeri, as military commander of the militia, was believed to have worked closely with Soleimani and facilitated his connections to other PMU militias, before Soleimani’s death in a U.S. airstrike in January 2020 (Asharq al-Awsat, December 15, 2020). The militia was reportedly given substantial monetary support and arms from Iran, and has advocated for the establishment in Iraq of wilayat al-faqih (rule of the Islamic jurisprudence), the form of government followed by Iran (see MLM, August 2, 2016).
In October 2019, widespread demonstrations broke out in the Shia majority areas of central and southern Iraq to protest corruption, lack of opportunities, inefficient government services, the post-2003 political system, and more. Tehran saw the protests as part of a larger conspiracy to displace Iranian influence in the country (Arabi21, October 30, 2019). PMU militias, with Iranian approval, were at the forefront of the violent crackdown on protestors. The PMU crackdown operations were led by Abu Zainab al-Lami, with al-Jazaeri providing on-the-ground tactical oversight in Baghdad (see MLM, December 3, 2019; TRT World, October 25, 2020; Asharq al-Awsat, December 15, 2020).  Al-Jazaeri reportedly coordinated Saraya al-Khorasani fighters who were involved in shutting down six Baghdad TV stations that were broadcasting footage of the protests (U.S. State Department, October 2019). Al-Jazaeri has also been accused of leading a team of snipers who killed demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in October 2019 (Asharq al-Awsat, December 15, 2020).
Since committing these human rights abuses, al-Jazaeri has experienced a fall from grace within the PMU. In May 2020, reports indicated that Faleh al-Fayyad, the chairman of the PMU, announced that al-Jazaeri would be relieved of his command within the umbrella organization (The Arab Weekly, May 24, 2020; Asharq al-Awsat, December 15, 2020). Al-Jazaeri’s influence within Saraya al-Khorasani was maintained, but it signaled that the group was falling out of favor. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been attempting to limit the influence of the PMU since he entered office in May 2020, with limited success. Kadhimi ordered a raid of a warehouse operated by Kata’ib Hezbollah—a prominent Iranian-linked PMU militia—resulting in the arrest of 14. They were all released, however, following pressure from the militias (Tasnim News Agency, June 26, 2020).
The recent arrests of al-Jazaeri, al-Yaseri and over a dozen members of Saraya al-Khorasani were reportedly made with Iran’s approval. Notably, the arrests were carried out by the PMU security forces, with al-Jazaeri and al-Yaseri being charged with corruption. The move is allegedly the first step in the process of dismantling the militia, which is reportedly being overseen by PMU Chief of Staff Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi, a.k.a. Abu Fadak.  Moreover, the move had the approval of the other PMU factions and the Iraqi government (Asharq al-Awsat, December 15, 2020).
Al-Jazaeri’s arrest is a result of several ongoing trends, including Prime Minister Kadhimi’s efforts to rein in the PMU, the ongoing protest movement in Iraq and rising resentment in Iraq against the militias. Al-Jazaeri, in his role as military commander of Saraya al-Khorasani, was responsible for significant human rights abuses during the war against IS and the subsequent occupation of Sunni-majority areas of Iraq. The militia has also gained a bad reputation at the local level for corruption and embezzlement of businesses. The arrest of al-Jazaeri and the Saraya al-Khorasani leadership is an attempt by the PMU to clean up its own image in attempt to become a more legitimate organization to the Iraqi people and an international audience.
 See CTC, Volume 13, Issue 1, January 2020.
 To read more on Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi, see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 3, 2020.