The last few days have seen a curious story unfold in Iraq culminating in the arrest of al-Baqiri al-Najafi after he was apparently exposed as an impostor pretending to be a commander in al-hashd al-shaabi. Al-Najafi was apparently rumbled when Iraqis began to question the quality of his written Arabic as he described various ‘official’ visits around Baghdad with accompanying photos (see below) on his Facebook account. Al-Najafi’s postings, replete with elementary Arabic spelling errors, led Iraqis to wonder how this ‘ignorant’ ‘illiterate’ man could be both a hawza graduate and a hashd commander.
The story has gained traction in Iraq in the context of ongoing protests against corruption. Many Iraqis interpreted the events as evidence of endemic corruption and nepotism embedded in Iraqi institutions, assuming that al-Najafi was able to exploit his connections to rise to prominence despite lacking the appropriate capacities for such a role. This may explain why the Popular Mobilisation Committee, the official body charged with oversight of many of the hashd units, felt compelled to release a statement denying that al-Najafi was ever a legitimate hashd commander and was in fact an ‘impersonator’ who ‘exploited the sacred name’ of the hashd. Al-Najafi has since been arrested on the charge of impersonating a hashd commander.
A spox for al-hashd was on Iraqi news stating that al-Najafi is in hiding. Either he was never arrested, or was arrested and released. The image of him under arrest appears to have originated from Badr affiliated media sources. But it seems, as of today, al-Najafi is still at large.
Photos circulating in the Iraqi press and social media suggest that al-Najafi’s stint impersonating a hashd commander goes back at least as far as June. I’ve included a couple below.
More details about al-Najafi, who referred to himself as ‘sheikh’, have begun to emerge. He is young, apparently only 21/22 years old. He was reportedly arrested a year ago in Diyala having acquired a stash of 50 weapons which he was attempting to sell on the black market. He then spent 8 months in prison. After his release he seems to have issued a fatwa calling for the establishment of a military group that he himself would head…
Whether al-Najafi was a genuine Walter Mitty character, an impostor, the beneficiary of nepotism, or some combination of all these, is difficult to ascertain. In reality this seems to be rather sad story of a young man hopelessly out of his depth. However, what is clear is that behind the tragic-comedy of this curious story lies another snap shot of the dysfunction of Iraqi institutions and the deep scepticism and frustration, in this case turned to satire, that many Iraqis feel towards their governing elites. As one news outlet put it, following al-Najafi’s arrest, these images ‘indicate the extent of corruption and nepotism which penetrate the institutions of the state. It would be more useful to arrest the departments and officials who celebrated him and opened doors for him.’