Fallout from US strikes against Iranian-backed militias

Watch footage of the US air strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq.

Footage of the US airstrikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria (Credit: US Army)
US air strikes on five targets linked to Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, have caused concern and fallout in Iraq, as political leaders jockey to condemn America. Some Iraqi politicians who are in the pro-Iran camp of parliament have been waiting for this moment for years to argue that US forces should leave Iraq. Others are quietly supportive of the strikes but concerned that they could be leveraged against the US, and they could then lose a key force that balances Iran’s growing role.
For Iran, the US decision to openly strike back against six months of rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias is a potential boon. Iran’s Press TV has indicated this by airing grievances of Iraqi politicians and highlighting anti-American statements.
The main condemnation came from Iraqi President Barham Saleh, who said the attacks were contrary to US-Iraq agreements, according to Press TV. US forces are in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad to help fight ISIS; they have no mandate to bomb Iranian-backed militias.
Saleh is in a difficult spot because he has been resisting the pro-Iranian parties in parliament in their attempts to appoint another stooge as prime minister. He must carefully tread a fine line because some groups have condemned him for appearing too pro-American. Saleh was a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party and has often been careful to weigh his ties to the US with the important role Iran plays in Iraqi politics. He threatened to resign in late December if he was forced to choose a new prime minister who Iraq’s protesters reject.
First, Ammar al-Hakim, whose Shi’ite Party controls 19 seats of the 329 in parliament, condemned the US. Maj.-Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi armed forces, also claimed that former prime minister Adel Abudl Mahdi had condemned the attacks in a private call with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. It is a “dangerous aggravation which endangers the security of Iraq,” said Abdul Mahdi, who resigned on November 30 due to protests. Iran’s Tasnim News reported the general’s comments and Abdul Mahdi’s call.


Unsurprisingly, a chorus of voices linked to the Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias that include the one bombed by the US, were nonplussed. Kataib Hezbollah, which saw its members killed in the US air strikes, said the attacks disregard the sovereignty and honor of Iraq.
But it is Kataib Hezbollah – the Hezbollah Brigades – that has been firing rockets at US bases in Iraq for six months, killing an American contractor on December 27. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose leaders Washington sanctioned on December 6, also condemned the “cowardly attack.” The group has called for the US to leave Iraq before; its leader, Qais Khazali, was detained by the US in 2007 after attacks on Americans. Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was sanctioned by the US in 2009 and is a wanted terrorist in Kuwait, also condemned the attack on his bases.
Falih Khazali, a member of the Fatah Party in parliament and leader of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, also condemned the US; he condemned President Donald Trump in December 2018 as well. The group controls the 14th Brigade of the PMU, and like Kataib Hezbollah, is linked closely to Iran.
Iran’s goal now is to leverage the US attacks to its benefit and portray America as a foreign force invading Iraq and killing Iraqis. It will argue that the members of the Hezbollah Brigades, who were members of the 45 and 46 Brigades of the PMU, were Iraqi security forces who were helping fight ISIS. For years, pro-Iranian voices have spread conspiracies arguing that the US is helping ISIS.
Many of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq earned their spurs fighting the Americans in 2006-2009. They used to fire rockets frequently at the US. They stopped during the ISIS war when a fatwa by Iraqi Shi’ite leader Ali al-Sistani called up men to join the PMU. But these pro-Iranian groups have a large lobby in parliament and have influence over the Interior Ministry. They want the PMU to become Iraq’s version of the IRGC, which is also Iran’s long-term goal. The protesters in Iraq oppose Iran’s role and have attacked militia buildings. But the air strikes now complicate matters. Iran may tread carefully, trying to use the airstrikes to eject the US from Iraq.
US forces are seen as an important balance to Iran’s ambitions. IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani said in a recent interview that in 2006, US forces helped block his desire to aid Hezbollah. Iraqi-based militias like AAH openly oppose Israel, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis frequently condemns the Jewish state. In the Kurdistan region, there is also concern that a departure of US forces would hand Iraq completely over to Iran. The Kurdistan region was working with Prime Minister Mahdi on budget deals – and now the Kurdish region is concerned, too.