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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.

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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.

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"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."