WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – “We are deeply concerned about any abuses committed by sectarian armed forces,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino stated on Thursday, referring to the militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF.)
“Many of those armed groups are aligned with Iran,” Palladino continued, “which has used those groups to undermine Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty.”
In particular, he singled out the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC.)
“Qasim Soleimani and his Quds Force actively seek to use these armed groups to intimidate the Iraqi people and undermine the legitimate authority of Iraq’s elected government,” he said.
Palladino focused on one senior PMF official: “the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces,” Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who “is on video declaring his loyalty not to Iraq and Iraq’s duly elected leaders, but to Qasim Soleimani.”
Muhandis, indeed, has long-standing ties with Iran and Soleimani. In 1983, the US and French embassies in Kuwait were bombed in an Iranian-sponsored terrorist attack. A Kuwaiti court subsequently convicted Muhandis in absentia for his role in the attacks.
For the next twenty years after that, Muhandis was based in Iran, where he worked with Soleimani. In 2003, after the US-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein, he returned to Iraq. Using his real name Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Muhandis is a nom de guerre), he was elected to Iraq’s new parliament in 2005 as a member of the Dawa party (to which Iraq’s first post-Saddam prime minister belonged, as did his two successors.)
When the US came to understand who Muhandis was, US troops tried to arrest him. However, he succeeded in fleeing to Iran and returned to Iraq only covertly and for brief visits, as long as US forces remained in the country.
In 2007, Muhandis formed a militia group “employing instructors” from Lebanese Hezbollah, the US Treasury Department explained in 2009, when it designated him and his group, Kata’ib Hezbollah, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization which “threatened the peace and stability of Iraq.”
Muhandis was involved in smuggling from Iran into Iraq highly lethal bombs, known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), capable of penetrating heavily armored vehicles, as well as other weapons that were used to attack Coalition forces and Iraqi troops.
Muhandis returned to Iraq after 2011, when US forces withdrew. In 2014, when the Islamic State seized one-third of the country, as the Iraqi army collapsed, and Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for the mobilization of volunteers to join the fight against the Sunni terrorist organization, Muhandis took charge.
“He’s involved in everything: administration, funding, logistics and planning” of the volunteers, a senior Iraqi security official told Reuters then.
In January 2015, Muhandis surprised many people when he suddenly appeared in public to give a press conference in the highly secure seat of the Baghdad government, the “Green Zone” and identified himself as the deputy head of the PMF.
Despite his background, the US long expressed little criticism of Muhandis’ role in the PMF, or at least not publicly. In fact, as late as December 2017, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, responding to a question from Kurdistan 24 about Iran’s influence over the PMF, dismissed it as “an internal Iraqi matter.”
“The prime minister,” Haider al-Abadi, “knows how to best manage his security forces,” she affirmed.
That, however, has changed, and the US is now speaking more realistically and clearly about the problem.
On Wednesday, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. As the section on Iraq states, “Civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain units of the Popular Mobilization Forces that were aligned with Iran.”
Palladino’s statement on Thursday, made in response to a question from Kurdistan 24, was consistent with the new US readiness to identify and denounce Iranian proxies within the PMF.
Just how Washington intends to counter those proxies is, however, unclear. Yet, it may also be worth noting that Palladino’s remarks resemble what Grand Ayatollah Sistani said on Wednesday to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as Rouhani was concluding a three-day visit to Iraq.
Sistani welcomed “any steps to strengthen Iraq’s relations with its neighbors,” based on “respect for the sovereignty” of each country.
The elderly cleric stressed to the Iranian President the importance of “keeping weapons in the hands of the state and its security services,” an apparent reference to the PMF groups that operate independently of the Iraqi government, including those that answer to Qasim Soleimani.
Editing by Nadia Riva