The video is a feature on Abu Azrael, Iraqi militia commander and known as “Iraq’s Rambo,” the most renowned fighter in the country.
Azrael is shown walking the streets of Baghdad, where many civilians flock to get their pictures taken with him. The narrator of the video says that he is considered a national hero by many Iraqis. Azrael’s name literally translates to “the father of the angel of death” in Arabic, and his bravery has turned him into a living legend in a country still recovering from the shock of the Islamic State’s takeover last summer. Grown men are swearing fealty to him and expressing their admiration for him, and even children are getting their photos taken with him.
He is shown driving through the streets of Baghdad, answering questions in Arabic, as a translator voices over. Azrael says he stands by his word, which is why many prefer him over dishonest politicians. As of the video, he had spent all night in the Fallujah district, which the ISIS had claimed, fighting against them. In the trunk of his car are his equipment, including an M4, explosives, a smoke bomb, grenades – he always carries them with him.
He goes to a gym, where he is a regular. He goes to work out, but more importantly, to meet his brothers in arms. The atmosphere is light-hearted, but they all belong to Shia militias backed by the government. Azrael says they’ve been training in Lebanon and Iran for a long time, years even. He is a well-seasoned fighter, first picking up a weapon 10 years ago. In 2002, he was fighting the United States. At the time, he was on their list of wanted terrorists. Now, the lines have shifted and the US supports his missions.
Abu Azrael is called the “Iraqi Rambo” by his comrades, owed to videos he shot while on the field and posted online, featuring “Grind you to dust,” a slogan he started using last March. In a couple of weeks, his first video had garnered millions of views, and he kept posting. His slogan began to become a chant, echoed by people as a warning to the jihadi group, all the way across the world. A cartoon was even made of him shown defending the country. His brigade makes Hollywood-like propaganda movies.
This morning, he is on the way to the front line, where he is armed with grenades, but also with two smartphones, a way to reach out to his fans. He takes videos, sharing what he sees, and uploads immediately to counter jihadist propaganda. He checks Facebook, where he has over 200,000 followers. He says he films to send a message to the jihadists, since they use videos of their killings as power, he says they do the same, but instead spread the word that they are fighting for Iraq – a propaganda war.
They go into dangerous enemy territory, where they only control the road and the rest of the area is under ISIS. He constantly meets with generals and military officials, who call on him to secure the oil refineries. They say this mission would be impossible without the Shiite militias. Abu Azrael is thronged by people who want to take a photo with him.
The military officials are hopeful that the militia can lift the spirits and enthusiasm of troops. While filming, gunshots are heard. The army does not move, but Abu Azrael and his fighters immediately start off to combat the enemy fire. The terrorists appear to be out of sight, entrenched behind buildings on the other side. Azrael says it is best to leave.
Around a third of ISIS strongholds are now under military control, thanks largely to the Shiite militias. But international organizations are now talking about war crimes in the freed zones. The group heads back to Tikrit, the symbol of the Shiite militia’s victory. A deadly battle last month left hundreds dead, and what was once one of Iraq’s richest cities is now abandoned. To get past the checkpoints, a Shiite soldier accompanies them, a 19-year-old student who has traded his books for a Kalashnikov. He says no one came back to Tikrit, except for one old lady who has known both ISIS and Shiite rule.
They go to the old woman, and she refuses to let anyone inside her home. In Tikrit, there have been summary executions in broad daylight and hangings on street corners. Amnesty International has gathered plenty of data on revenge killings done by Shiite soldiers on Tikrit’s population and other areas with large Sunni populations. The militia men strongly deny the accusations.
These fighters are financed by Iran, Iraq and the US, an official force of around 120,000 men that tracks increasing numbers of young recruits, like the boy shown who is only 16. He says he wanted to be a sniper since before he could remember, and his toys now are his weapons. When asked if he is too young, the other soldiers say they warned him and asked him if he is sure, because he might die, and he says it’s his choice to fight.
In Baghdad, people try to forget the constant conflict, but checkpoints and the security walls are reminders. Abu Azrael serves as a symbol of protection for the people. He invites them inside his home, where his children are, and he eats with his family, before having to head out to war again. These militias follow their religious leaders more than their governments. Abu Azrael says he’s ready to pursue his war beyond the borders of Iraq, if they have to go. All he asks is to die a martyr, words that do little to calm the world’s fears that the Shiite militia men are just another version of jihadism. It’s time for Azrael to head back, and it’s hard to say for how long war will continue to go on in a country that has been experiencing it for 12 years.