Many Iraqis call Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes “the de-facto Prime Minister of Iraq” even though he is a designated terrorist who commands Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia whose bases were bombed by US warplanes in Iraq and Syria this week.
Two days after that bombing, on New Year’s Eve, al-Mohandes walked into the heavily protected Green Zone in central Baghdad unopposed with a mob of Iran’s proxy militia fighters and set fire to the US Embassy.
The Iraqi government did nothing to stop him.
Al-Mohandes is not only the commander of Kataib Hezbollah, a designated terror group, but also the deputy commander of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias and is prominent in the party which has the largest voting bloc in Iraq’s parliament.
During the embassy attack, party faithful from Iran’s other main Iraqi militias – including Badr Corps and Asaib Ahl al-Haq – joined al-Mohandes in having their pictures taken while their mob set fire to the embassy gates. Faleh al-Fayad, Iraq's National Security Advisor, looked on approvingly.
Let’s make something absolutely clear. This mob was not made up of Iraqis who have been protesting against their government in Tahrir Square, or Freedom Square in Arabic. Quite the contrary. These are Iran’s terrorist proxies who have overrun the government in Baghdad and are now ordering the killing of Iraq’s brave young protestors. They are demonstrating that the formal government has no control over them.
Just as Iraqi security forces stepped aside as al-Mohandes and his militias moved on the US embassy gates, they do nothing to protect the unarmed young protestors, who call for the removal of a puppet regime leading Iraq they know answers to Tehran.
Kataib Hezbollah and its allies in the PMU militias have conducted dozens of attacks on Iraqi military bases over the past few months. On Friday they fired 30 rockets at a base near Kirkuk in the north.
This Iraqi airbase is where Americans, at the invitation of Baghdad, advise and assist Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS remnants.
But this time, the rockets killed an American and wounded four US service members and several Iraqi security forces.
Instead of condemning Kataib Hezbollah for launching rocket attacks against a joint force of Americans and Iraqi security forces, on December 30 the government of Iraq condemned the United States. Washington’s supposed crime was to defend itself against a terrorist organization that answers to Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and one that Baghdad is either powerless to control or simply beholden to.
Only two weeks earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper had warned Iran to stop these attacks and threatened harsh retribution, not just against Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq, but the “prime actor.”
The US responded to the Kirkuk rocket attack with a bombing raid on five Kataib Hezbollah bases on the border of Iraq and Syria on Sunday. The attack hurt al-Mohandes and Soleimani immensely because those bases are used to move troops and material across the border to Syria, and then to attack Israel.
Let’s call it like it is, the US hit a designated terrorist group – Kataib Hezbollah, a group that terrifies the Iraqi government and its civilians. The current government and its security forces are incapable and unwilling to deal with these militias – and because Baghdad did nothing, the US had no choice but to take action.
In calculating its next move against Iran and its proxies, Washington should urgently re-evaluate the support it provides to the Iraqi government.
There will be more attacks by Tehran’s militias and proxies, and the US needs to be prepared to punish Iran directly by hitting its Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force directly.
The US needs to use its leverage.
The US should warn Baghdad that loan guarantees on $30 billion of “reconstruction” funds – money that will likely fall into the hands of corrupt officials tied to Iran – will end unless Baghdad takes dramatic steps to reform and pushback against Soleimani.
The US should also consider pulling its Advise and Assist, and Train and Equip Programs for the Iraqi security forces as long as Soleimani’s militias have access to US funds, training, equipment and intelligence.
The US should sanction and designate Iraqi Shia leader Hadi al-Amiri and his Badr Organization, as well as PMU Chairman Faleh al-Fayad for their roles in the attack on the US embassy and the killing of innocent unarmed Iraqis.
Secretary Pompeo took the first step today by calling al-Amiri an Iranian proxy.
More importantly, it is time to go after Soleimani and al-Mohandes – they are enemies of the Iraqi people, the region and the United States.