Grave of killed Iraq militia head becomes anti-US pilgrimage hotspot

Grave of Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in Najaf's Wadi Al Salam has become symbol of Iran’s ‘resistance’ to America

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A minibus stopped outside the world's largest cemetery in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Five women got out, camera phones filming the scene, and dashed towards a grave.

Clad in black, they joined wailing women and men beating their chests in grief at Wadi Al Salam, or Valley of Peace, an ever expanding graveyard.

All eyes were on the grave of Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

Killed alongside top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3, Al Muhandis is now revered by supporters as a symbol of anti-American resistance.

His grave has become a magnet for Shiites vowing vengeance against Washington.

Below a life-size portrait of the commander, a young man knelt before his grave, with the wailing of women ringing around him.

"May God avenge us from America," the man screamed.

Along aisle nine of Wadi Al Salam, the commander's grave has gained near-holy status.

It has become a stop for the thousands of pilgrims who pass through Najaf each day to visit the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

"It is not just a grave, it has been transformed into a shrine," said Abbas Abdul Hussein, a security official at the cemetery.

"Men, women and children flock from Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain daily to visit Abu Mahdi."

Al Muhandis was head of the Hashed Al Shaabi, an Iraqi military network largely incorporated into the state.

He was Suleimani's top Iraqi aide and was widely seen as Tehran's man in Baghdad.

The US strike that killed the two outside Baghdad airport dealt a severe blow to Tehran and its so-called axis of resistance that stretches across Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

Iraq's armed factions, the most hardline of which are financed, trained and armed by Iran, have vowed to avenge Al Muhandis's death.

They said the 5,200 US troops stationed in Iraq would have "hell" to pay.

But about two months after the assassination, there has yet to be a heavy response, apart from Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi military bases on January 8.

A small shrine was also erected at the site of Al Muhandis's death at the entrance to Baghdad airport.

Dressed in black from head to toe, Umm Hussein said she made a 450-kilometre trek from Basra in southern Iraq to pay homage at the grave in Najaf.

"Every time we come to visit we will make a stop to see the hero and martyr Muhandis. It is a duty," she said.

From the early hours of the day until after sunset, the entrance to the cemetery is bustling with minibuses ferrying visitors.

Standing over Al Muhandis's grave, tears rolling down her cheeks, Souad said she also came from Basra to honour the "hero".

"His death really affected us and the Hashed as a whole," she said.

Wadi Al Salam is also the final resting place of thousands of Hashed fighters killed during the battle against ISIS.

It was on this front that Al Muhandis – known for his virulent anti-Americanism long before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq – became a revered figure.

Al Muhandis, accused of involvement in deadly 1983 attacks against the French and US embassies in Kuwait, oversaw the Hashed and its integration into the Iraqi state.

He transformed most of his paramilitary fighters into regulars, but some have remained outside government structures, including those Washington accused of attacking its personnel in Iraq.

Flanked by the graves of other commanders, Reza Abadi, an Iranian from Suleimani's home town of Kerman, recited a eulogy over the grave of Al Muhandis.

"We came here to show our respect for this man who is dear to Iranians and Iraqis," he said. "The memory of the two martyrs, Hajj Qassem and Abu Mahdi, will never be forgotten."