PMF deputy commander Muhandis details Hezbollah ops in Iraq

Qods Forces Commander Qassem Soleimani (green hat) and Popular Mobilization Forces operational commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis (black hat).

Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), gave an in-depth interview last week with the pro-Iranian, pan-Arab satellite television channel Al Mayadeen, in which he confirmed the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq. In the interview, Muhandis said that there was a “very good” relationship between his PMF and Hezbollah, carried out with “the knowledge and agreement” of the Iraqi government. He said that both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Haidar al-Abadi were aware of the relationship from the outset, “down to the minute details.”

He said that PMF “benefited greatly” from Hezbollah’s support, who played a “central” and “very important” role in the PMF’s battle-readiness. Muhandis said “the brothers in Hezbollah” sent advisors to Iraq from the beginning of the battles against ISIS. Along with Iran, Hezbollah helped the PMF “with training and planning, and with weapons and equipment.” However, he also hinted that Hezbollah’s role may not have been exclusively advisory, saying that the Lebanon-based Shiite group “offered martyrs” on Iraq’s battlefields.

Muhandis (right), pictured with Prime Minister Abadi and former Prime Minister Maliki.

The relationship between the PMF and Hezbollah, Muhandis noted, was not merely one of solidarity against their common foe of ISIS, but as with the PMF’s relationship with Iran. They consider the Lebanese Shiite group a “friend, ally and partner in the region.” He noted that with the consent of the Iraqi government, the PMF would continue its relationship and alliance with Hezbollah beyond the battle for Mosul or the immediate fight against ISIS.

On a personal level, Mudandis said he was “honored” to have a “long-standing” relationship with Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whom he called “master (sayyed) of the Resistance” and a regional symbol. He also spoke of his long-standing personal relationship with two of Hezbollah’s storied founders and former military commanders, Imad Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine, whom he called “the great martyrs.” Describing his relationship with the two late commanders as “firm and operational,” he said Mughniyeh and Badreddine were the first to come to Iraq in the early 1980’s to train “Iraqi [Shiite] jihadi rejectionist groups,” to fight Saddam Hussein. Beginning in the 1980’s and for years afterwards, Muhandis – born Jamal Jaafar Mohammad Ali Aal-Ibrahim – worked alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Iraqi proxy Badr Organization.

Along with Badreddine, Muhandis was part of the militant group Dawa 17. They were involved in the 1983 near-simultaneous bombings of the US and French embassies in Kuwait, the Kuwaiti airport, the Raytheon Corporation’s headquarters, a Kuwait National Petroleum Company oil-rig, and a government-owned power station. The attacks killed five people and injured 86. Along with Badreddine, Muhandis was also linked to the 1985 attempted assassination of Kuwait’s emir.

Muhandis recalled that after 2003, Badreddine and Mughniyeh returned to Iraq to “train, aid and prepare” Iraqi Shiite militias against US forces in Iraq, himself included. At that time, Muhandis served as the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia which carried out deadly attacks that killed hundreds of US troops in Iraq. He helped smuggle improvised explosive devices in from Iran and Hezbollah. Known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), those explosive devices were the primary killer of US troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.  As a result, Muhandis was listed by the US government as a specially designated global terrorist in July 2009, and was described as an advisor to Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the external arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force.

Muhandis said the Badreddine and Mughniyeh played a “very important” and “central” role in training Iraqi Shiite “mujahidin forces” and organizing them as “resistance cells against the Americans.” This greatly benefited the PMF, as Muhandis noted that “large proportion” of the PMF’s fighters “come from the cadres of those who fought the American presence in Iraq.”

Muhandis also spoke of the PMF’s relationship with other countries and groups. Most important among those was with Iran which, along with Hezbollah, served as the “cornerstone” of support for the PMF, supplying them with “weapons, ammunition, [battle] planning and advisors.” He said that though the PMF now purchases weapons from the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah with Iraqi government funds, in the past both Tehran and the Shiite group gave them aid freely and “with great generosity.” He also noted that while the Americans did not aid the PMF in the battles to defend Irbil and Baghdad, the Iranians did.

He stressed that the PMF neither wanted nor needed a relationship with the United States. However, they do want peaceful relations with Turkey and have open communication with the Russians. He said Moscow had placed intelligence assets and the representative of the Russian Defense Minister in Iraq. He noted that the head of the PMF, Falih al-Fayyad, was on a trip to Moscow at the time of the interview and that talks were underway for Russia to arm the PMF.

Muhandis denied the presence of PMF fighters in Yemen “in an official manner,” aiding the Houthis, whom he described as “brothers.” However, he did say that, “there could be Iraqis there in one capacity or another,” and confirmed the existence of political ties between the PMF and Ansarullah.

Like his allies in Hezbollah, Muhandis believes in establishing a Shiite theocracy on the Iranian model, and considers himself a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His future plans for the PMF also sound similar to Hezbollah’s model in Lebanon. Hezbollah – which claimed it was resisting the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon –  refused to disarm after the IDF withdrew from Lebanon on May 25, 2000. Likewise, Muhandis now says PMF will not disarm after the battle for Mosul. And like Hezbollah, which claims its presence is still necessary because Israel still occupies Lebanese lands and either the Jewish state or Sunni Islamists could attack Lebanon in the future, Muhandis said the PMF’s continued presence would still be required because Iraq still needed to be “cleansed of ISIS.” He hinted that the PMF would remain in existence even after that because of the fear that ISIS could return in another form, “just like the Baath [Party] transformed into al-Qaeda, which itself became ISIS, and who knows what will come in the future?”

Muhandis also said that after the battle for Mosul and Iraq, his fighting groups would “go to any area that threatens the security of Iraq.” Then, with the consent of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, PMF intended to “fight ISIS” in Syria, noting the presence of Iraqi Shiite militias fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. He also stressed the “constitutional and legal right” individual PMF members to pursue political careers.

David Daoud :David Daoud is an Arabic-Language Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.