Iraqi militia commander brushes off US call to disband
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