Iraqi elections: Why one candidate says he faces a US death threat

Abu Mahdi al Mohandas is one of more than 6,000 candidates on the ballot in the Iraqi elections on March 7. But the Shiite politician, now hiding in Iran, says the US considers him a terrorist and a weapons supplier to Iraq militia groups.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    Iraqi elections: A poster depicting Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, center top, is seen above an election campaign poster for Dr. Nasser al-Rubaiye in the Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday.
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Abu Mahdi al Mohandas is one of more than 6,000 candidates who are running in the Iraqi parliamentary elections next month, but he's probably the only contender who won't set foot on the campaign trail for fear of a U.S. assassination attempt.

"I was told, officially, by the speaker of parliament and a high-ranking Iraqi official that it's preferable I don't show up before the election because they couldn't assure I would be protected," Mohandas told McClatchy in a rare, two-hour telephone interview Wednesday from Tehran, Iran. "Since 2005, the Americans have conveyed a message through an Iraqi mediator that they'll kidnap or assassinate me."

Campaign posters around Baghdad depict Mohandas, 56, as a white-bearded elder statesman who belongs to the main Shiite Muslim ticket that's challenging Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's bloc. Mohandas' name also appears on a more dubious list: Last July, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Mohandas, accusing him of helping to train Shiite militia members to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and of moving weapons from Iran into Iraq for that purpose.

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Although he's a member of the Iraqi parliament, Mohandas lives in neighboring Iran, effectively exiled from his home country because of Washington's accusations that he's an Iranian proxy with a terrorism-related rap sheet that dates to a 1983 attack on Western embassies in Kuwait.

Close to Iran's Quds Force

Earlier this month, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, described Mohandas as the right-hand man to Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

A Treasury Department statement said Mohandas had employed instructors from Lebanon-based Hezbollah to train Shiite militias, including members of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, to attack U.S. and coalition troops. It alleged that Mohandas ran networks that moved munitions — including mortars, Katyusha rockets and sophisticated roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators — from Iran into Sadr City, a Shiite militant stronghold in Baghdad.

"He's in Iran for a very good reason, which is ... if he ever set foot in Iraq and we knew it, we would have grabbed him in a heartbeat," said a former senior U.S. official with knowledge of the case against Mohandas, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"He was directly implicated in attacks on Americans. I found the evidence to be totally compelling," the official added.

His responses to US accusations

In the telephone interview, Mohandas called the U.S. claims against him "absurd" and "ridiculous." Still, he takes the allegations so seriously that he's not quite ready to return to Iraq, even though his parliamentary immunity and an American-Iraqi security pact that requires the U.S. to obtain official Iraqi permission for arrests would offer him some measure of protection.

"I might return" after the election, Mohandas said. "I've lived through dangers before and have escaped death dozens of times."

Mohandas responded at length to specific allegations against him:

_ He denied involvement in the 1983 plot to bomb foreign embassies in Kuwait, where he was working as an engineer at the time. He said Kuwaiti security forces rounded up hundreds of innocent Iraqis in the aftermath and that he fled as soon as he was named a suspect because he didn't think that he could get a fair trial in that political climate. He was convicted in absentia; a spokesman for the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington said he didn't know whether the conviction still stood.

_ Mohandas called claims that he's a close adviser to Soleimani "baseless and false." He said Soleimani handled Iraq-related affairs for Iran and that "any Iraqi on an official visit to Iran should meet him." Mohandas said Iran didn't need him to act as a channel between the countries because "Iran already has so many relationships and so much power." He added, however, that his decades in the political and militant opposition to the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had left him with "broad relations with Iranian officials who are concerned with Iraq."

_ He said he was not and never had been a terrorist. Contrary to American accusations, he said, he worked hard to resolve rather than inflame deadly battles between U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Najaf, Basra, and Sadr City. He said he also used his connections to ease the sectarian bloodshed that followed the bombing of a landmark shrine in Samarra in 2006. He said he expected U.S. gratitude for "easing disagreements and my participation in stopping conflicts, consequently reducing American casualties."

_ Mohandas said Iraq's election authorities wouldn't have approved his candidacy if he had a criminal record. He said the statements by Odierno suggesting that he was a terrorist were irresponsible and would cause "deep wounds" between the Shiites and the Americans. He claimed that U.S. officials were upset because recent Iraqi decisions to disqualify some candidates with suspected ties to Saddam's former Baath Party had derailed American and Saudi efforts to restore some former Baathists to power as a counterbalance to Iran's growing influence.

Mohandas said he would've been willing to settle all these differences with the Americans through political or legal channels, but that U.S. officials had never approached him with anything other than threats of arrest, hints of assassination or smears in the news media. He said he'd lived in the Green Zone — the U.S. and Iraqi government compound in Baghdad — from his election to parliament in 2005 until early 2007, "when they announced I wasn't a welcome character. That was an affront to Iraqi sovereignty."

A history of escaping to Iran

Once again, Mohandas said, he was cast into exile and he moved to Iran. He'd spent years there in the Saddam era, eventually as a member of what's now called the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its former armed wing, the Badr Corps. He parted ways with the group in 2003.

"We resorted to Iran, and so did most of the other opposition who managed to escape Iraq," he said. "No other state would give us shelter."

Mohandas said he'd spent the 1980s and 1990s forging bonds with fellow Iraqi dissidents, visiting Kurds in northern Iraq and meeting Shiite and Sunni Muslim Arabs in Kuwait or Iran. Even his name is a remnant of his life in the underground: Al Mohandas is a pseudonym meaning "the engineer," reflecting his training as a mechanical engineer. His real name is Jamal Jaafir Mohammed Ali. His campaign posters use both names, but he prefers the nom de guerre.

It remains to be seen whether voters will remember him either way. He hasn't attended parliament sessions in years, he's unwilling to risk capture to make stump speeches in Iraq and many Iraqis have grown wary of candidates who appear too cozy with Iran.

"Maybe the Iraqis will say, 'How will we elect someone who has not been in Iraq the last four years?' It's up to his supporters," said Ayad al Samarraie, Iraq's Sunni speaker of parliament, who said he met Mohandas on an official visit to Iran and told him it was probably safe for him to return. "I don't know if he is here how the Iraqi government will deal with a request by the Kuwaitis or the request by the Americans according to the charges they have."

Mohandas said he'd continue to work for Iraqi unity and sovereignty whether he was re-elected or not. He's also plugging away on a Ph.D. in international relations. The working title of his dissertation is "Regional Cooperation Among Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria," reflecting his dream of an oil-rich axis that would challenge U.S.-backed heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Egypt for regional supremacy, a prospect that makes Washington nervous.

The United States should have a role in Iraq, he said, but for now it should focus on withdrawing all troops and repairing damaged relations on the way out.

"I hope and wish that the Americans will not — after all these years of occupation, casualties and high costs — leave Iraq with such a large reservoir of hatred from Iraqis, especially Shiites," Mohandas said. "They can help Iraqis. We can build a democratic political system that denounces violence and terrorism, and it would help to have great relations between Iraq and the United States."

(Strobel reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.) 

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