Baghdad, Iraq – On January 3, soon after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani left Baghdad airport in an armoured vehicle, a US drone fired rockets at his convoy, killing the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iraqis accompanying him.
The brazen assassination sent shockwaves through the Middle East and beyond, triggering fears of an all-out war between the United States and Iran in Iraq, where the two foes compete for influence.
Iran did choose Iraqi soil to retaliate, sending a volley of missiles at two bases hosting US forces outside Baghdad and Erbil. The attacks on January 8 ended without any fatalities, however, easing worries of a regional conflagration. As the smoke clears, what is worrying observers in Iraq is the death of the powerful Shia militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same US strike targeting Soleimani.
His killing leaves the paramilitary he commanded – the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – without a clear successor, throwing the future of the 100,000-strong force into uncertainty and raising new concerns over instability in war-ravaged Iraq. The leadership vacuum is also likely to weaken Tehran’s hand in Iraq, according to experts.
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The PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi, was formed in 2014, in response to a fatwa by Iraq’s most influential Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The religious leader had put out a call for volunteers to take on ISIL (ISIS) after the Sunni armed group conquered more than a third of Iraqi territory.
Al-Muhandis, the widely used nom-de-guerre for Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahimi, was “the creator of the PMF, its over-seer”, said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Baghdad-based think-tank al-Bayan. With military backing from Soleimani’s Quds Force, al-Muhandis helped unite the group of 50 disparate militias – most of them Shia fighters – into an effective force against ISIL.
Mourners gather during a funeral procession for Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Basra, Iraq [AP]