The Other Trump Assassination: How the Overlooked Death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is Shaping Iraq

The Other Trump Assassination: How the Overlooked Death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is Shaping Iraq

By Koen van Wijk

On the third of January 2020, the Trump administration surprised friend and foe by assassinating the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. This assassination garnered much attention from news media and experts because of its spectacular execution – blowing up the car Soleimani was in at Baghdad airport with a drone strike – and its high-stakes target – undoubtedly one of Iran’s most important military figures. What received much less attention were the other men who died in the same attack [1]. Among these nine Iranian and Iraqi commanders was one Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Less infamous in the West than Soleimani, al-Muhandis was nonetheless a key figure to Iraqi military and political life, as well as a key ally to Iran. His assassination had serious consequences for Iraq and the region. More than a year on, it is high time to take stock of his death and the way it too shaped Iranian and US interests.

Al-Muhandis, the PMF, and Iran 

First, some history. Jamal Jafar Muhammad Ali al-Ibrahim, or Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, as he was commonly known, was key to Iraqi politics because of his position in Iran’s networks of influence. He, along with many oppressed Shia in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, gravitated towards Iran after the emergence of the Islamic Republic in 1979. He rose through the ranks of the Badr Brigades in the 1980s when it fought against Saddam’s regime while in exile in Iran [2]. The US invasion of 2003 hailed a new era in Iraq: one without Saddam, and with an explosion of militias. In this environment, al-Muhandis became a militia commander and a close ally to the Iranian regime. The US held him responsible for several terrorist attacks and the deaths of dozens of US soldiers in Iraq. In 2018, he was eventually placed on the US terror list [3] along with the organization he led: Kata’ib Hezbollah (not to be confused with the Lebanese Hezbollah).

Through his leadership of this group, and his close ties to Qassem Soleimani and Iran, al-Muhandis would become the de facto director of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or al-Hashd al-Sha’bi. The PMF was created in 2014 to resist the rise of the Islamic State, which took Iraq’s second city of Mosul that summer. With an ineffective and distrusted army, Prime-Minister al-Maliki created the Hashd as an umbrella organization. It would finance, coordinate, and unite the many militias in Iraq under the government’s leadership in the fight against this common enemy. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens volunteered to join militias as part of the PMF, and it soon became a formidable fighting force.

Seven years later, IS has been defeated in Iraq, but the PMF remains. It has come to play a central role in Iraqi military affairs, politics, and society. While it contains over 60 organizations of different ethnicities, sects, and political alignments, it is dominated by groups loyal to Iran. The PMF is directed by the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC). Officially it reports directly to the Prime-Minister and divides government funds among the militias based on their size. In practice, however, the PMC has remained independent of government oversight. The Prime-Minister appointed its president Falih al-Fayyadh as an attempt to increase control. However, he was sidelined and disinterested. The de facto leader of the PMC has always been its vice-chair: al-Muhandis [4]. He has used his position to exclude and underpay militias [5] that do not swear allegiance to Iran, and actively undermine the Prime-Minister’s authority [6]. He openly propagated his allegiance to Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah and their importance to his vision for the PMF [7]. Iran uses Kata’ib Hezbollah and its other allies in Iraq to launch attacks on American targets, which have become a regular occurrence over the last years, as well as on oil installations in Saudi Arabia [8] [9].

After his death

After the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Iraq was shaken by outraged protesters. They were outraged because of the death of these two men, who are considered heroes by Iran and certain Iraqis. But also outraged at the shameless breach of Iraq’s sovereignty that this attack constituted. Al-Muhandis may have been an enemy of America, and even of Iraq’s Prime-Ministers to an extent, but he was an Iraqi government officer. Protests organized by groups friendly to Iran called for America to leave Iraq. Far more commonly, however, protesters turned against the US and Iran both [10]. The Iraqi parliament passed a bill calling for the complete removal of all US troops from the country, and Iraqi-American talks on reducing the American presence have been held since [11]. The Iran-aligned militias in Iraq of course swore revenge. Strikes against US targets did follow, but none were significant.

So how to assess this bold assassination? Certainly, the US took out an important mediator in Iran’s semi-covert militia network. There are plenty that can replace al-Muhandis, but his personal standing and connections were crucial in connecting the many different actors that make up Iran’s vanguard. In the cases of both al-Muhandis and Soleimani, replacements will need time to reach the trust and respect that the two leaders commanded. Al-Muhandis was the central figure in the PMF since its inception. Now, opponents of his influence within the organization demanded that his replacement be a more neutral figure. But Iran’s allies did not dominate the PMF through al-Muhandis alone. The networks of power and influence run much deeper than that. Iran is a key player in Iraqi politics in general, and the military power and bureaucratic weight of Iran-aligned militias such as the Badr Organization ensured Tehran’s continued representation in the PMC. Despite the protests from other groups, another Kata’ib Hezbollah commander is now acting vice-chairman of the PMF [12]. The council that elected him was made up entirely of allies of Iran.

The assassination did send a strong message to militia commanders in Iraq: you are not untouchable. While this might sound like it could function as a deterrent, it has led to a shift in the rules of the game that is not advantageous to the US. The already opaque leadership structures and operations of Iran’s allies in Iraq have become even more obscure, and leaders have gone quasi ‘underground’. This has real consequences for Iraqis and Iran’s enemies. For example, prominent researcher and PMF critic Hisham al-Hashimi periodically received threats from Iran-backed groups. In the past he had been able to use his contacts in the PMF to cool tempers [13]. After al-Muhandis’ death, one key broker within the PMF was dead and others were in hiding. Al-Hashimi was murdered in front of his house by suspected Kata’ib Hezbollah members in July of 2020.

Iran’s modus operandi in Iraq also changed with the assassination. Soon after the attack, several prominent groups loyal to Iran united in the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission (IRCC) [14]. This cooperation allows for greater Iranian control and planning of the anti-American resistance, which previously was often unruly and marred by internal competition. Another change was that another layer of plausible deniability was added to the attacks on Americans in Iraq. Suddenly, new groups with unclear leadership or affiliation started claiming the rocket strikes previously often attributed to groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. These new groups are widely considered fronts intended to make accountability and retaliation trickier [13]. In February of 2021, the Biden administration responded to a series of attacks by striking a Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq checkpoint in Syria [15]. It is no secret that Iraqi militias fight in Syria in support of Iran and its ally, the Assad regime [7]. Biden’s retaliation was a good signal that the US would continue to hold all of Iran’s network accountable for the actions of its parts. Nonetheless, oversight, control, and accountability of Iran’s proxies in Iraq has become trickier, a fact which is troublesome first and foremost to the Iraqi government.

Making up the balance

Trump clearly took out a substantial tactical opponent with al-Muhandis and appears to have dented the untouchable confidence of America’s enemies in Iraq. The question remains whether this tactical success contributed to victory in the strategic war. Accountability is important to the US’ standing in the world and in its messaging to Iran. However, its effects indicate that it may have been a strategic error. The United States has two main goals in Iraq: to reduce Iran’s influence and strengthen the Iraqi (democratic) state. Al-Muhandis’ killing did not shake the power of Iran-backed groups in the PMF. It did not scatter inimical militias; in fact, it increased their unity and coordination. It created a public backlash and further obscured the operations and organization of Iran’s resistance in Iraq. This is an inconvenience for the US, but a severe impediment to Iraqi politics. Like it or not, Iran’s allies are powerful in Iraq’s military, political, and social environments. They cannot be ignored. Dialogue with them is an absolute requirement for increasing Iraq’s stability and reducing the corruption and violence that have become endemic. Leaving them paranoid and unreachable only further complicates Washington’s objectives. American Middle East policy often leans on military measures, but while violence may seem an enticing end-all for enemies, it is seldom without consequences. In the case of al-Muhandis, his death may have been a victory in the cold war against Iran, but Iraq’s outlook is once again left gloomier and more complicated.

References

[1] Peter Baker et al., “Seven Days in January: How Trump Pushed U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War,” The New York Times, January 14, 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/11/us/politics/iran-trump.html.

[2] Zana Gulmohamad, “The Evolution of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces),” in The Regional Order in the Gulf Region and the Middle East: Regional Rivalries and Security Alliances, by Philipp O. Amour (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 259-301.

[3] US Congress, “Text – S.3431 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act,” webpage, September 12, 2018, 2017/2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3431/text.

[4] Michael Knights, Hamdi Malik, and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces,” Policy Focus (Washington D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2020), 62.

[5] Gulmohamad, “The Evolution of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces),” 284; Renad Mansour, “Why Are Iraq’s Paramilitaries Turning on Their Own Ranks?,” Washington Post, February 18, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2019/02/18/why-are-iraqs-paramilitaries-turning-on-their-own-ranks/.

[6] Simona Foltyn, “Divisions in Iraqi Forces over Crackdown on Iran-Backed Group,” Al Jazeera, July 9, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/videos/2020/7/9/divisions-in-iraqi-forces-over-crackdown-on-iran-backed-group-2.

[7] Al Mayadeen Programs – برامج الميادين, حوار الساعة | الحشد الشعبي | 2017-01-03, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-uYkGK0lqQ.

[8] John Davison, “Iraqi Militias Say They Have Halted Anti-U.S. Attacks,” Reuters, October 11, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-iraq-militias-idUSKBN26W0IT.

[9] Isabel Coles and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S.: Saudi Pipeline Attacks Originated From Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2019, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-saudi-pipeline-attacks-originated-from-iraq-11561741133.

[10] Gareth Browne, “‘Keep Your War Away’: Iraqis Revive Protests amid US-Iran Tension,” Al Jazeera, January 11, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/1/11/keep-your-war-away-iraqis-revive-protests-amid-us-iran-tension.

[11] Arwa Ibrahim, “US-Iraq Talks Promise US Troop Withdrawal, Fall Short of Timeline,” Al Jazeera, June 12, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/6/12/us-iraq-talks-promise-us-troop-withdrawal-fall-short-of-timeline.

[12] Michael Knights, “Back into the Shadows? The Future of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iran’s Other Proxies in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 13, no. 10 (October 2020): 9–10.

[13] Renad Mansour, “Networks of Power: The Popular Mobilization Forces and the State in Iraq,” Research paper, Middle East and North Africa Programme (London: Chatham House, February 2021), 37, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/2021-02-25-networks-of-power-mansour.pdf.

[14] Tamer Badawi, “Iraq’s Resurgent Paramilitaries,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 22, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/84368?utm_source=rssemail&utm_medium=email&mkt_tok=MDk1LVBQVi04MTMAAAF8vVwQmwOD6gLU5ar3XatItctPT5l_jm19Jd2-_1DTquUr-Rng59h-987XGErMkrenYyUdH83SqK7EWFm3n03NPeglv2gdnzJpeOwE9Vm5RP9NOg.

[15] Barbara Starr, Oren Liebermann, and Nicole Gaouette, “US Carries out Air Strikes in Syria Targeting Iranian Backed Militias,” CNN, February 26, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/25/politics/us-iraq-iran/index.html.