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Iraq’s New Power Broker: An Iran-Backed Militia Leader on the U.S. Terrorist Sanctions List

An Iran-backed militia leader whom the United States considers to be a terrorist has grown increasingly important to Iraq’s security apparatus, reflecting Iran’s rising influence in the affairs of its western neighbor, The Wall Street Journal reported (Google link) on Thursday.

Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, popularly known by the nom de guerre of Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, leads the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of Iraqi Shiite militias. He was designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2009 for his role in destabilizing Iraq by targeting American and allied forces.

The PMF, which fights in parallel to the regular Iraqi army but are not controlled by the government, have played a major role in fighting ISIS in Iraq, and are expected to be a critical role in the effort to recapture the city of Fallujah. While Ibrahami and the PMF are effectively fighting on the same side as the United States, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in a security briefing earlier this year that Iran “continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East” and is still “a continuing terrorist threat to U.S. interests and partners world-wide.”

While Ibrahimi and the PMF are viewed as crucial to Iraq’s security, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad cautioned that the PMF are “the infrastructure of future civil wars.” He explained to the Journal that they “remain a basis for continuing conflict and for conditions that lead to the rise of terror, maybe in a different name after ISIS.” He added that the PMF could in the future cause conflicts “inside the Shiite community, between the Shiites and other groups within Iraq, and beyond.”

Security researcher Michael Pregent made a similar assessment last year, noting that Iran and its allied Shiite militias were only fighting ISIS on the margins, refusing to extend themselves too far to fully finish them off.

Ibrahimi is seen as the right-hand man of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s extraterritorial militia. The Journal reported that Soleimani issues the battle orders that Ibrahimi carries out, and also provides him with the resources necessary to carry out operations.

Ibrahimi, an Iraqi himself, fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and trained under the IRGC to fight against Iraq. He was chosen in 1983 to lead a series of bombings in Kuwait after Iran ordered attacks against Middle Eastern nations that had sided with Iraq. Ibrahimi was convicted in absentia of planning the bombings and sentenced to death in 2007. Mustafa Badreddine, the Hezbollah commander who was recently reported killed in an explosion in Syria, was also implicated in those terror attacks.

The Treasury ruling cited Ibrahimi’s Kuwait bombing operations, as well his role in targeting American forces. He has been accused of smuggling materials from Iran into Iraq to create explosives called explosively formed penetrators, which were the major killer of U.S. forces in Iraq until their withdrawal in 2011.

While U.S. and Iraqi officials don’t believe that Ibrahimi poses an immediate threat to American troops fighting ISIS right now, the Journal wrote that U.S. officials were concerned that Ibrahimi “has helped refuel an antagonism for America that could still put U.S. forces in harm’s way” in the future.

In I Saw the U.S. Hand Iraq Over to the Iranians. Is the Whole Region Next?, which was published in the February 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine, Pregent observed:

Iran appears to believe that the U.S. is essentially standing behind them on the ISIS issue. This, in turn, is seen as a tacit endorsement of Iranian influence in Iraq. In fact, recent statements from key U.S. officials on Iran’s ostensibly constructive role in the fight against ISIS have been interpreted as a green light for Iran to increase its sphere of influence in Iraq.

As a result, what was once rumored to be true is now out in the open: Shia militias are commanded by the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards-Quds Force. Shia militias that once targeted and killed U.S. and other coalition members now populate the ranks of Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units. Shia militias and their Iranian handlers are operating with impunity for the first time; not only against ISIS, but also against their Sunni enemies in general. As a result, Iran and its proxies now believe that the U.S. views them as a necessary evil on the battlefield and legitimate partners in the Iraqi government.

This has given Iran and its Shia proxies enormous influence over Iraqi politics. Recent statements from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, for example, promise a more inclusive government, endorsing more Sunni involvement in government ministries and Iraqi security forces. To accomplish this, however, al-Abadi must get the approval of the Shia political parties, which means he needs to get the approval of Iran.

In effect, then, Iran now has veto power over Iraqi government policies.

Iran is also cementing its influence over the Iraqi military. Through its Quds Force advisers, it is now in a position to direct the mobilization of Shia militias and their eventual integration into Iraq’s security forces, thus shaping the country’s military and intelligence operations.

Having witnessed this jarring turn of events, it is important to point out that this is not simply an Iraqi issue. It is a regional issue. The Iranian government believes that the U.S. wants a nuclear deal so badly that it will tacitly approve Iran’s activities throughout the Middle East—including in Syria and Yemen—by downplaying Iranian influence or ignoring it altogether. At the same time, Iraqi politicians cite the slow pace of America’s “strategic patience” as a reason to welcome Iranian support. But support comes with a price, and it is a price that will be paid not only by Iraq, but also the U.S. itself.

[Photo: Popular Mobilization Forces Media Directorate]