Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Nouri al-Maliki, a former Iraqi prime minister supported by Iran, has given much of the credit for the Mosul victory to an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias, many supported by Iran, which he formed in 2014. The commander of the largest militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces, is Jamal al-Ibrahim, known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
- Abu Mahdi is a former colleague of Hizbullah leader Imad Mughniya and a protégé of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. Abu Mahdi escaped from a Kuwaiti prison in 1990 after he was convicted and sentenced to death for bomb attacks on the American and French Embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.
- Incredibly, he was elected to the Iraqi parliament in 2005 as a member of the Shiite coalition governing Iraq. When his involvement in the Kuwaiti bombing became known, Abu Mahdi fled to Iran. He has now returned as a leader of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces of Iraq.
- The role played by the Shiite militias under Abu Mahdi’s command in liberating Mosul will have a strong impact on the future of Iraq. Iran has virtually won control over Iraq, a key segment of the “Shiite arc” land route from Tehran, through Iraq and Syria, to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
When the Iraqi army liberated Mosul from ISIS this week, they were joined by the Shiite militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or in Arabic the Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi. Leading the PMF is Jamal al-Ibrahim, known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Born in 1954 to an Iraqi father and an Iranian mother, he established his reputation in 1983 as the terrorist mastermind who planned bombing attacks against the American and French Embassies in Kuwait. He was joined by Mustafa Badar a-Din from Beirut, who had served as the operational deputy to Imad Mughniya in the framework of Hizbullah. Though sentenced to death by a Kuwaiti court, he sat in prison between 1983 and 1990.1 The motive of many of the kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon in those years was to obtain the release of the Shiite prisoners in Kuwait, known as the “Dawa 17.”
Mughniya, who was responsible for the kidnappings, was married to Badar a-Din’s sister, who pressed her husband to force the prisoners’ release. Iranian intelligence operatives extracted him from a Kuwaiti prison after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Abu Mahdi was elected to Parliament in 2005 as part of the Shiite coalition at the time. He also served as a security adviser to Iraq’s first post-Saddam Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari.
Already in 2003, Abu Mahdi was operating in Iraq under the orders of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani to build a violent resistance to the American forces in Iraq. The Iranian Quds Force recruited instructors and advisors from Hizbullah in Lebanon. Mughniya and Badar a-Din themselves were involved in organizing and training the Shiite cadres in Iraq who assisted Abu Mahdi attacking U.S. forces.
After the American forces left Iraq, Abu Mahdi became a leader of the “Iraqi Hizbullah,” known as the Kataibb Hizbullah or Hizbullah Brigades, which later morphed into the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
In the Mosul campaign, “Iranian military factories worked around the clock to arm the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF),” reported Asharq Al-Awsat, quoting Quds Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani added that with its expertise, Lebanese Hizbullah helped the PMF and that it had lost many of its members fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The leading role taken by the Shiite militias under Abu Mahdi’s command in liberating Mosul will have a strong impact on the future of Iraq. Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei made it clear to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in his latest meeting in Tehran that the PMF is an “important and blessed phenomenon.” According to Khamenei, these forces have an important role in ruling Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State. Thus, Iran has virtually won control over Iraq, a key segment of the “Shiite arc” land route from Tehran, through Iraq and Syria, to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean. “Today (after the capture of Mosul), the resistance highway starts in Tehran and passes through Mosul and Beirut to the Mediterranean,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, according to the Wall Street Journal.2
Iran’s victory in Mosul was made inevitable by decisions taken years earlier by Washington to avoid any confrontation with the growing Shiite militias in Iraq at the same time as the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq during the Obama Administration. Tehran exploited the resulting vacuum. Significantly, the Trump Administration has built up the American presence in Syria, which besides helping to defeat ISIS there, will be pivotal for preventing the Iranians from achieving their strategic goal of a continuous highway from Tehran to the Mediterranean coast.
Iran’s military leaders praised the Iraqi Popular forces’ capture of Mosul and the cooperation and coordination extended to them by Iran. Defense Minister Brig.-Gen. Hossein Dehghan congratulated Iraq’s popular militias on the “liberation” of Mosul. The retaking of the city “raised the spirits of all lovers and supporters of stability, calm, and safety in Iraq – in particular, the government and armed forces of [Iran].”3
Ali Shamkhani, Head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), congratulated Iraq’s Shiite leader, Ayatollah Sistani, and Iraq’s popular militias on the retaking of Mosul. Shamkhani commented, “The great victory in Mosul was achieved thanks to the leadership of top Shia clerics, the prudence of the Iraqi government and the bravery of the country’s army and popular forces.”4
Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani stressed on July 10, 2017, the contribution of Iranian forces in aiding Iraq. He noted that “the work of our nation’s sons in service to the nation of Iraq was the work of soldiers, under the banner of Iraq and Iraqi clerics.” He added that “the nation of Iran, under the orders of the Supreme Leader, placed its life and possessions into the service of [Iraqis], and we consider any soldiering on that front a matter of pride.”5
After the Mosul campaign and the boasts of both the Iranians and their PMF proxy, the words of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani do not offer any comfort: “Sometimes we solve issues through diplomacy, which is good. But, some problems can’t be solved through diplomatic ways.”6
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1 James Glanz, “Iraqi Lawmaker Was Convicted in 1983 Bombings in Kuwait that Killed 5,” New York Times, February, 7, 2007; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/07/world/middleeast/07bomber.html
2 Wall St Journal, Iran Poised to Gain as ISIS Falls in Mosul, July 11, 2017; https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-poised-to-gain-as-isis-falls-in-mosul-1499727809