Iraqi mili­tia com­man­der brushes off US call to dis­band

Imperial Valley Press - - CLASSIFIED -

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 Iran-backed 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. “Tiller­son is asleep,” he said.

“Iran was the only coun­try that sup­ported Iraq from the be­gin­ning of the Daesh cri­sis,” he said, re­fer­ring to the IS blitz in 2014. “It’s like when you’re in a hos­pi­tal and you need blood. The Amer­i­cans would be the one who would show up with the trans­fu­sion when it was too late.”

As to whether the Amer­i­cans should re­main in Iraq, Al-Muhan­dis said: “We fol­low the Iraqi gov­ern­ment de­spite our per­sonal opin­ions, and our per­sonal opin­ions are well known, so I won’t re­peat them here.”

The PMF sprang into ac­tion again ear­lier this month, when fed­eral forces re­took the north­ern city of Kirkuk and other dis­puted ar­eas from Kur­dish forces in re­sponse to the Kurds’ vote for in­de­pen­dence in Septem­ber.

The mil­i­tary ac­tion, which caused few ca­su­al­ties and was cel­e­brated as a vic­tory by the coun­try’s Arab ma­jor­ity, gave a fur­ther boost to the para­mil­i­tary forces.

“What hap­pened in Kirkuk is a suc­cess for the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and the Iraqi forces,” Al-Muhan­dis said, adding that his forces had helped co­or­di­nate the Kur­dish with­drawal to min­i­mize clashes and ca­su­al­ties. “We want a broth­er­hood with the Kurds,” he said, re­fer­ring to their shared strug­gle against Sad­dam Hus­sein in the 1980s.

The fight­ing nev­er­the­less dis­placed thou­sands of peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, which doc­u­mented the loot­ing and de­struc­tion of “hun­dreds” of prop­er­ties near Kirkuk.

In­ter­na­tional rights groups al­leged wide­spread vi­o­la­tions by the mili­tias through­out the cam­paign against IS and said the gov­ern­ment had failed to hold them ac­count­able.

Al-Muhan­dis and other com­man­ders say any abuses were iso­lated in­ci­dents, and that per­pe­tra­tors have been brought to jus­tice.

Al-Muhan­dis rarely speaks to re­porters, but his im­age is per­va­sive on so­cial me­dia, where he can be seen wear­ing olive fa­tigues and sur­vey­ing front-line po­si­tions from Iraq’s north­ern bor­der to the west­ern An­bar prov­ince, where troops and mili­ti­a­men are bat­tling IS in the last pocket un­der its con­trol.

He’s of­ten stand­ing be­side Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and a key ad­viser to the PMF. Mu­sic videos shared on­line praise al-Muhan­dis’ hu­mil­ity and fear­less­ness.

He can also be seen in pho­tos at­tend­ing strat­egy meet­ings chaired by Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi.

The PMF are of­fi­cially an “in­de­pen­dent mil­i­tary for­ma­tion” un­der the prime min­is­ter’s com­mand.

In this Jan. 9, 2016 (file photo), Abu Mahdi al-Muhan­dis, (cen­ter), at­tends a cer­e­mony mark­ing Po­lice Day in Bagh­dad, Iraq. On Mon­day, in his first ex­ten­sive in­ter­view with a ma­jor west­ern me­dia out­let, al-Muhan­dis, the deputy head of the mostly Shi­ite forces known as the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Units and a des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist ac­cord­ing to the United States de­part­ment of trea­sury, de­scribed a “strong” and last­ing role for the forces un­der his com­mand in Iraq, many closely sup­ported by Iran. AP PHOTO/KARIM KADIM

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