Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the funeral of Qasem Soleimani's father.

Reflections on the Life and Death of an Iraqi Militant

They buried Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi in Najaf, Iraq, on Jan. 8. Although Ibrahimi was born far to the south in Basra province, Najaf was the chosen resting place for the reputed martyr. Najaf houses the Imam Ali mosque, an ancient and beautiful shrine in honor of Shiite Islam’s original martyr, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law. It attracts pilgrims from all over the Shiite world, many of whom in the future will no doubt be guided to Ibrahimi’s grave. The pilgrims will be reminded that American missiles killed the militia leader better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Al-Muhandis died in the early hours of Jan. 3 at Baghdad International Airport along with the man he had gone to greet, Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. His assassination, perhaps more than Soleimani’s, increased local hostility to the U.S. presence in Iraq even among those opposed to Iranian interference in their domestic affairs. Unlike Soleimani, al-Muhandis was Iraqi, albeit with close familial and professional ties to Iran, and a government official. To Iraqis, the killing of al-Muhandis is equivalent to taking out Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, director of the U.S. Army National Guard. The difference is that, while most Americans have never heard of Hokanson, every Iraqi knew about Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The Career of the Engineer

I have a personal connection to al-Muhandis. If not for the suicide car bombing that he directed against the American and French embassies in Kuwait in December 1983, it is less likely that I and about a hundred other Americans and Europeans would have been kidnapped in Lebanon in the 1980s. Let me explain.

The story begins with Ibrahimi’s birth near Basra in 1954, when Iraq was a British-dominated monarchy. A military coup led by Col. Abdel Karim Qasim overthrew the Hashemite king four years later. That inevitably led to one coup after another until the Baath Party seized power in 1968. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who was a party assassin and not a military officer, became one of the most brutal dictatorships in a region of tyrants. Saddam’s cruelty was especially harsh on the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. Militants in both communities went underground.

Ibrahimi took his degree in engineering from Baghdad’s University of Technology in 1977. Al-Muhandis, the name he adopted, means “the Engineer.” Like many other Shiites opposed to Saddam, he joined al-Dawa, “the Call.” Saddam repressed the organization, and al-Muhandis fled to Iran, which had just deposed the shah and established the Islamic republic.

Iran trained dissident Iraqi Shiites in Ahvaz to fight against Saddam’s army, which invaded Iran in 1980. As well as fighting on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, al-Muhandis and other al-Dawa members launched terrorist operations in Kuwait. The Kuwaitis were funding Saddam’s war machine, and Iran wanted them to pay a price for it. Al-Muhandis organized the attack on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait City in December 1983, two months after other Iranian-backed Shiites had blown up the American and French military barracks in Beirut. Al-Muhandis escaped back to Iraq, but the Kuwaitis arrested 17 other suspects. Several of them belonged to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim group. One of them, Mustafa Badreddine, was the cousin of ranking Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh. A Kuwaiti court convicted the “Kuwait 17” and sentenced several to death.

The kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon, which had begun in 1982 with the abduction of American University President David Dodge in response to the kidnapping of five Iranians by Israeli-supported Christians, accelerated. The Lebanese captors demanded the release of the Kuwait 17. They and Iran envisaged a straight hostage swap. It did not work out that way. AP bureau chief Terry Anderson and scores of others had to endure years of wretched captivity. Kuwait did not release its prisoners, but it did refrain from executing them lest the Western hostages be killed. They achieved their freedom when their old enemy, Saddam, invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and opened the prisons. The Kuwait 17 fled to Iran. The foreign hostages in Lebanon were not released until the Lebanese civil war ended and Hezbollah decided to establish itself as a legitimate political party. Al-Dawa continued to fight against Saddam and the Western countries that supported him until 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq and allowed the group’s members to return home, run for parliament and participate in government.

I witnessed the ragtag fighters trying to take Ramadi in 2015 and Mosul a year later. What they lacked in discipline they made up for in fearless assaults on Islamic State positions — religious fanatics against religious fanatics.

Iraq’s first post-Saddam prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, belonged to al-Dawa, as did two of his successors, Ezzedine Salim and Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Dawa cooperated with both Iran and the United States, which was funding and training the Iraqi army. That army collapsed in 2014, when the Islamic State seized about a third of Iraq and captured tons of American weaponry. The top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa calling on Shiites to resist the invaders. That was when al-Muhandis, who already had a small militia called Kataib Hezbollah, and others formed armed groups under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). I witnessed the ragtag fighters trying to take Ramadi in 2015 and Mosul a year later. What they lacked in discipline they made up for in fearless assaults on Islamic State positions — religious fanatics against religious fanatics. But the PMUs had an asset that Islamic State fighters lacked: American air power. By 2017, they and the Kurds had seized all the territory the Islamic State ruled in Iraq. Then the implicit U.S.-Iranian alliance in Iraq cracked.

An Enduring Feud

It was not the first time the United States and Iran lost the chance to cooperate and ease the tensions between them. In 2001, the 9/11 attack on the United States put Washington and Tehran on the same side. Both wanted to remove the Taliban, which had persecuted Shiites in Afghanistan. Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and one of the best American diplomats I’ve ever encountered, flew to Geneva to meet an Iranian diplomat. In an excellent BBC radio documentary, “The Inquiry: Why Was Qasem Soleimani Killed?” Crocker said the diplomat represented Soleimani: “He produced a map that showed the Taliban order of battle throughout Afghanistan, and he accompanied that with the advice that we strike certain targets first. I asked if I could take notes. He said you can keep the map.”

This intelligence eased the invasion and saved lives, Crocker said. After that, though, then-President George W. Bush declared Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Crocker was astounded: “We moved literally overnight from a situation in which we were doing business with Iran on Afghanistan which was quite significant and that held open the prospect of a completely different chapter opening up in our relationship. ‘Axis of evil’ slammed that door shut, and it has not been reopened.”

It was due to open again following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of July 2015 to oversee Iran’s nuclear program and lift economic sanctions on Iran. That, too, ended with an unexpected declaration, this time by President Donald Trump in May 2018, to abandon the agreement and intensify sanctions. The assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, along with the reactions of Iraqis and Iranians, dim the already-dark prospect of ending the longstanding and costly feud between America and Iran.

Read the full article on Stratfor – The World’s Leading Geopolitical Intelligence Platform

Main image: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) at the funeral of Qassem Soleimani’s father. As much as the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. missile strike inflamed passions in Iran, the killing of al-Muhandis in the same operation had similar effects in Iraq, where he was a widely known and respected militia leader. Photograph © Farsnews.com used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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