The Iranian-backed terrorist group Kataib Hezbollah, which is also influential in parts of Iraq’s government and state-backed militias, is back in the spotlight in Iraq for its continued destabilizing role.
According to an article in Arab News by researcher Hassan al-Mustafa, a member of the group was linked to the murder of academic and intellectual Hisham al-Hashimi.
Another study at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that “on March 14, 2023, a group of KH [Kataib Hezbollah] fighters led by Abu Jaffar al-Daraji, a KH commander and the head of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) security directorate in Salah al-Din, engaged in a firefight with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) in Speicher.”
Why is Iraq's Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group back in the spotlight?
The overall context here is that Kataib Hezbollah was sanctioned by the US in 2009. Its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was a key Iranian proxy in Iraq and he was killed alongside IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in a 2020 US drone strike in Baghdad. Kataib Hezbollah was formed in the early 2000s, but men like Abu Mahdi were key figures in Iran’s octopus-like role in the region for many years. Kataib Hezbollah unsurprisingly shares a similar name with Lebanese Hezbollah. These kinds of groups perform similar roles. They hollow out a state from within and then expand the Iran-militia influence nexus.
Towards that end, Kataib Hezbollah has often been a kind of elite unit within the larger Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq. As such the group continues to threaten Iraq’s stability and may also threaten US forces. It also has had a role in Syria at times, extending Iran’s influence there.
Over the last several years, Kataib Hezbollah appeared to fade a bit from the spotlight. The new case illustrates its continued nefarious presence.
Hisham al-Hashimi was a key intellectual in Iraq. He was targeted for assassination in 2020 and murdered just outside his house. “The convict, Ahmed Ouaid al-Kinani, a police officer employed by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, confessed to killing Hashimi in July 2021 in video footage aired on an Iraqi television channel.
“Kinani’s affiliation with the Interior Ministry came as a shock to many but, more importantly, he was a member of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the country’s most radical militias and a Popular Mobilization Units faction,” Mustafa notes.
Mustafa is very knowledgeable on this issue and he notes in his article that “I communicated with figures in the Iraqi government headed by former prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and other sources inside Iraq, all of whom confirmed to me that Kata’ib Hezbollah was behind the attack. The Iraqi government and the judiciary did not indicate officially, however, that the people concerned with the case knew this perfectly well.”
While it is a positive development that Iraq has handed down a sentence to the killer, one of the problems in Iraq is that often one member of a militia may be sacrificed to preserve the overall structure. This is similar to how Hezbollah targeted a UN convoy last year and murdered an Irish UN peacekeeper and then pretended to hand over some culprit. The overall point is that one person is “handed over” but the Iranian-backed group continues to slowly swallow the state, the way an anaconda swallows its prey.
The article at Arab News goes on to say that “last Monday, clashes took place between a group of gunmen and Iraqi security forces in the Al-Buaitha neighborhood, southwest of Baghdad. Local media sources indicated that the gunmen were members of Kata’ib Hezbollah. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, the clashes were the result of the insistence of a militiaman on owning some agricultural land in the area. In some other accounts, the police officers raided an oil smuggling site controlled by Kata’ib Hezbollah.”
On the one hand, some believe Iraq’s current government can rein in groups like Kataib Hezbollah. This has been a common theme for Iraq analysts for a while. Each government comes and goes and each one is supposedly the new thing that will finally control Iraq, be pro-Western, and deal with the Iranian-backed militias. However, this is a kind of sleight of hand. Iraq is deeply penetrated by Iran and the Iraqi government is pro-Iran. The fantasy is that Iraq secretly has a nationalist streak that will confront the Iranian problem. But Iran sees Iraq as its “near abroad” and after the US invasion in 2003, Tehran quickly exploited the power vacuum to move into control Baghdad. Iran does this through numerous methods, one of which are armed groups like Kataib Hezbollah.
The West has sometimes mistaken Iraqi “strongmen” for being the answer to Iran’s influence. Nouri al-Maliki was empowered by the Obama administration. Unsurprisingly the pro-Iran deal crowd thought this would work. Maliki alienated half the country and destabilized it, weakening he army through sectarianism, and letting it collapse in the face of ISIS. Then came Haider Abadi, another great hope who was empowered to attack the Kurds in 2017 after having defeated ISIS. Abadi worked closely with Soleimani in the conquest of Kirkuk after clashes with the Kurds. Then Abadi left office and eventually, Mustafa Kadhimi became prime minister. He too was threatened by Iran’s militias. Now Iraq is led by Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani.
The Washington Institute article notes that “ever since the Sudani government was installed by the Coordination Framework, Iran-backed militias such as KH have been a more visible presence on Baghdad’s streets, with KH running checkpoints in the Palestine Street area that were not in place during the tenure of the Kadhimi government in 2020-2022.”
Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and considering what is being said here. Armed groups like Kataib Hezbollah operate both within and outside the state. The Iran-backed groups are often members of the PMU and receive state salaries as a paramilitary. At the same time, they engage in gun battles with civilians and other security forces. This is not how a state is supposed to operate. You can’t have local police having gun battles with the army and national guard in a country that functions. However, this is the Iranian model, which is taking place in Lebanon and Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. In fact, the recent Hezbollah military-terror-army parade in Lebanon was an example of this phenomenon.
What matters is that Kataib Hezbollah is back in the spotlight. The organization which blends criminality, terrorist elements, and paramilitary sectarian Iranian elements, continues to bedevil Iraq and shows how the government will likely never be able to rein in groups like this. Whether the new Iran-Saudi agreement or other regional deals might create some kind of method for reducing the role of these groups is unclear. In the past Kataib Hezbollah had threatened Saudi Arabia; now it threatens Iraq’s security and local people, as it has in the past.