Iraqi mili­tia com­man­der brushes off US call to dis­band

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE -

BAGH­DAD (AP) — With the Is­lamic State group driven from nearly all of Iraq, U.S. of­fi­cials have sug­gested that the thou­sands of mainly Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary fight­ers who mo­bi­lized against the Sunni ex­trem­ists three years ago lay down their arms.

But Abu Mahdi al-Muhan­dis, who once bat­tled U.S. troops and is now the deputy head of the state-sanc­tioned Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces, says they are here to stay.

“The fu­ture of the (PMF) is to de­fend Iraq,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press in his first ex­ten­sive in­ter­view with a West­ern me­dia out­let. “The Iraqi army and Iraqi po­lice say they can­not op­er­ate with­out the sup­port of the Hashd,” he added, us­ing a short­ened Ara­bic term for the para­mil­i­tary force. In the years af­ter the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion, al-Muhan­dis led the Hezbol­lah Brigades, a feared Shi­ite mili­tia with close ties to Iran and the Le­banese mil­i­tant group of the same name. His real name is Ja­mal Jaa­far Ibrahim, but he’s still bet­ter known by his nom de guerre, and his rise to the top ranks of Iraq’s se­cu­rity apparatus re­flects the long, slow de­cline of U.S. in­flu­ence over the coun­try.

He par­tic­i­pated in the bomb­ing of West­ern em­bassies in Kuwait and the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of that coun­try’s emir in the early 1980s, for which he was con­victed in ab­sen­tia and added to the U.S. list of des­ig­nated ter­ror­ists.

But like many Shi­ite mil­i­tants, he re­turned to Iraq af­ter the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion. Two years later, he was even elected to par­lia­ment, be­fore be­ing forced to step down un­der Amer­i­can pres­sure.

In 2009, the State De­part­ment linked him to the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard, call­ing him a “threat to sta­bil­ity” in Iraq, and as re­cently as last week it re­ferred to him as a ter­ror­ist.

But in the sum­mer of 2014, when the Is­lamic State group swept across north­ern Iraq, and the U.S.-trained and funded army col­lapsed, his and other Shi­ite mili­tias mo­bi­lized in de­fense, halt­ing the ex­trem­ists on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal. The mostly Iran­backed mili­tias re­mained sep­a­rate from the U.S.-led coali­tion, but over the next three years they helped Iraq’s re­con­sti­tuted mil­i­tary to drive IS out of most of the coun­try.

To­day, al-Muhan­dis, in his mid-60s, is among the most pow­er­ful men in Iraq, split­ting his time be­tween the front lines, Iran and his home and of­fice in Bagh­dad’s heav­ily-guarded Green Zone. He de­scribes the PMF as a “par­al­lel mil­i­tary” that will help keep the peace once IS is gone.

Al-Muhan­dis “demon­strates that Iran has a di­rect venue with which to in­flu­ence Iraqi pol­i­tics, and a pow­er­ful one at that,” said Phillip Smyth, an ex­pert on Shi­ite mili­tias at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

“It’s no se­cret,” al-Muhan­dis said of his close re­la­tion­ship with Iran, the coun­try where he spent decades in ex­ile and un­der­went mil­i­tary train­ing. He said he per­son­ally seeks spir­i­tual and mo­ral guid­ance from the coun­try’s lead­er­ship, but that the PMF only gets ma­te­rial sup­port from Tehran.

Ear­lier this month, U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son de­manded that Iran-backed mili­ti­a­men in Iraq re­turn to their homes, in­te­grate into the Iraqi army or leave the coun­try.

Al-Muhan­dis ca­su­ally dis­missed the ap­peal.

In this Jan. 9, 2016 file photo, Abu Mahdi al-Muhan­dis, cen­ter, at­tends a cer­e­mony mark­ing Po­lice Day in Bagh­dad, Iraq. AP PHOTO/KARIM KADIM

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