Last month the United States offered a prize for providing "any information on the activities, networks and colleagues" of a senior Lebanese Hezbollah official, thought to have replaced Qassem Soleimani as an operative in the region.
Washington says in full coordination with the Islamic Republic and through extra-legal activities in Syria and Iraq the senior official is helping Tehran to dominate the "Shiite Crescent", or the "Resistance Axis" as it is called by the leaders of clergy-dominated Iran.
He is none other than Sheikh Mohammed Kawtharani, a close associate of the fallen Chief Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) Qods Force, General Qassem Soleimani.
Sheikh Mohammed Kawtharani has played a pivotal role in implementing the Lebanese Hezbollah plans in Iraq, especially since a U.S. drone killed Soleimani on January 3, outside Baghdad international airport.
He was so close to Soleimani that it was rumored at the time he was also killed during the U.S. drone attack. Soon, the rumor died down, but it showed that Iraqi and regional public opinion was paying attention.
Although not a military official, Mohammad Kawtharani is currently responsible for the political coordination of Tehran-backed Shiite militia groups left as Soleiman's inheritance.
Earlier, Soleimani was personally in charge of bringing together the leaders of the Shiite groups and force them to work together.
Now, with a less charismatic and influential successor, Brigadier General Esmail Qa'ani (Ghaani) as head of the Qods Force the Lebanese Sheikh Kawtharani is at the center stage, attempting to regroup and reunite Shiite militia and their leaders in Iraq.
Kawtharani has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2013 for his militant activities. Earlier, reports were saying that Kawtharani was the mastermind of an attack on a Karbala governorate center in January 2007 that left five people dead.
In addition to his activities in Iraq at the time, he was also involved in transferring Shiite militia forces to Syria to help Bashar al-Assad in the devastating civil war in the country that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more.
Kowtharani's other illegal activities include money laundering and financing terrorism.
However, recent developments in the region have increased Washington's sensitivity and forced it to focus on the Lebanese Sheikh.
In recent months, Iraqi militia forces have once again intensified their attacks on coalition forces, particularly on U.S. forces and diplomatic missions in Iraq. In the meantime, they have also violently suppressed the popular uprising and anti-government protests in the country.
Meanwhile, the recent appointment of the former head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Organization, Mustafa al-Kadhimi (Kazimi), as the country's new prime minister, has somewhat strengthened the prospects for stability in Iraq. Moreover, the deadly outbreak of the novel coronavirus and Soleimani's death have significantly reduced the speed and intensity of Tehran's aggressive policy in Iraq.
Nonetheless, it is simplistic to assume that Tehran will step back from its regional ambitions, especially in Iraq. The Islamic Republic is constantly testing its luck in this dangerous gamble. Thus, the existence and role of people like Sheikh Kowtharani are effective in keeping the fires in the volatile region alive.
The militia groups that Iran has created in the region are not just used in military conflicts, but they are also pseudo-governments out of the legal government's control.
The pseudo-governments in Iraq interfere with political decision-making and disrupt the implementation of state laws in their realms. They are the carbon copy of similar entities in the Islamic Republic, including the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps that has been established to control the government and ruthlessly suppress all anti-regime protests and movements.
Regardless of the Shiite ideology that is the driving force, and the military weapon that is the tool of these groups, their mechanism, whether in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain or elsewhere, is based on opposing anybody selected by the people, the legitimate government and the established legal institutions. In addition to military power, these groups need a professional "lobbyist" capable of exerting political pressure behind the scenes to perform better.
While offering the prize for information leading to Mohammad Kowtharani's arrest or elimination, the State Department has emphasized on the fact that Lebanese Sheikh is not only in charge of providing logistical support and training Shiite militias but also has a special skill in resolving disputes between them. This emphasis shows that the confronting Shi'ite militia groups will not be complete without knowing the activities of figures such as Kowtharani.
The award also goes in the wake of recent US Treasury Department sanctions against companies and individuals linked to the IRGC for their support of the Iraqi Shiite militia.
Although it has not been long since the tempting award offered, it has had positive results, essentially in making the world's public opinion, and especially the regional media, sensitive over the activities of this mafioso Sheikh.
In the past two weeks, several Iraqi media outlets have reported that they have obtained "exclusive" information about Kowtharani's presence in the country's political discussions. Thus, the sensitivity and pursuit of the media have made it very difficult for those who want to meet with Kowtharani in Iraq.
Moreover, informed Iraqi government officials and individuals have become more cooperative with the media to disclose more data concerning Kawtharani's activities.
For example, an unnamed Iraqi government official recently told AFP that Kawtharani is "an exact carbon copy of Soleimani's principle" in terms of his style of work. Following Soleimani's footsteps, Kawtharani also attends meetings after meetings with Iraqi authorities in Baghdad's highly protected Green Zone of Iraq to advance his political aims.
Referring to the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of Shi'ites' efforts to consolidate power in Baghdad, an informed Iraqi official recently disclosed that since 2003 the Mafioso Sheikh has been responsible for Iraqi affairs, and directly reporting to the Lebanese Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
A high-ranking Lebanese Hezbollah member has also said that "apart from Suleimani, who was killed," Kawthararani is "the only non-Iraqi who has detailed information on the Iraqi political scene."
Called "Ja'far" by his close associates, Kawtharani is indeed Lebanese, but carries Iraqi nationality, as well.
About fifty-year-old, Kawtharani was born to a Lebanese couple in the city of Najaf, 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) south of Baghdad. Although his parents later left Iraq, Sheikh Mohammad preserved his ties with the country.
Married to an Iraqi, Kawtharani has four children and fluently speaks Arabic in the Iraqi dialect, which is different from the Lebanese one.
A prominent historian and analyst on Iraqi political issues, Hisham al-Hashimi, believes that Sheikh Kawtharani plays "more than one role" in Iraq. "Since 2014, he has been trying to reconcile the dominant Shiite forces in Baghdad with their Sunni rivals", says al-Hashimi.
In the meantime, Sheikh Kawtharani also uses his contacts and experience in Iraq for his personal purposes and those of his group in Lebanon. According to an Iraqi government official, Kawtharani recently asked the Baghdad government for billions of dollars in aid, amid worsening economic conditions in Lebanon.
To this day, the Mafioso Sheikh has gained his power through his hidden secrets and lobbying. Exactly following the same path the IRGC Major General Qassem Soleimani took in the early days of his regional activities.
Even when he goes to Iran and meets with the Islamic Republic leaders, there is no news of his trips and meetings in the media. Even the IRGC commanders have always been silent in their statements about him and his role.
But the media attention and the millions of dollars the US has set aside for information leading to him (as mentioned earlier) could likely change the game to his detriment, and some political analysts even believe that offering the award could lead to his possible future arrest.