BASRA, Iraq/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Thousands of Iraqis packed the streets of Basra on Tuesday to mourn militia leader Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed last week by a U.S. air strike alongside his Iranian mentor Qassim Soleimani.
His body arrived in his hometown of Basra after funeral processions elsewhere in Iraq and Iran. Its next stop, the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, is where he will be buried.
Last Friday’s drone strike at Baghdad airport has united Iraqis in outrage and prompted parliament to offer support for a government plan to expel U.S. and other foreign troops, amid fears of a wider conflict in the Middle East.
Muhandis, who founded the Shi’ite Kataib Hezbollah militia in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, was de facto leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella body of all Iraq’s mostly Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
He was also the top Iraqi adviser to Soleimani, who commanded the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) Qods Force, charged with extending Iran’s military influence beyond its borders, often through proxy forces.
Muhandis had near-mythical status among these groups, and his daughter told Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV that Soleimani had been “his brother, beloved and dear”.
Fanar Haddad, Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, said Muhandis was near irreplaceable for the PMF, a diffuse grouping without the robust structures of the IRGC and the Qods Force.
“Muhandis was overseeing the process of centralising and institutionalising (the PMF) within the Iraqi state and had made significant gains in that direction,” he said.
About 30,000 people thronged the streets of Basra waving Iraqi and militia flags and chanting “No, no America!” and “No, no Israel!”.
“We will avenge Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Soleimani by forcing American troops to leave Iraq,” said Shi’ite cleric Muhsin al-Hakeem, standing beside the convoy carrying Muhandis’s casket.
Muhandis fought for decades alongside Soleimani and other prominent Iraqi militia leaders such as Badr Organisation chief Hadi al-Amiri, now the most likely candidate to succeed him.
They fought on Iran’s side against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Then Muhandis worked in Kuwait with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to organise attacks on embassies of countries that supported Saddam during that war.
But unlike Amiri and others who turned to politics, Muhandis remained a fighter.
In a video will he left to be shared after his death, Muhandis called on his supporters to “perpetuate jihad”.
“I pray I spend the afterlife with ... those I fought with, from Kuwait, to Iran, to Iraq. The Badr youth, and later the resistance against the occupation, and now the PMF youth.”
“I command you to take care of the Shi’ites in the region and in the world,” he told his followers.
Reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Additional reporting by Mohammed Atti in Basra; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Kevin Liffey