A dangerous escalation in Iraq, a direct Israeli concern

An organized campaign is under way against US targets. Who is responsible?

A 2015 PHOTO OF a fighter for Ktaeb Hizballah, emerging as the key antagonist to the US in Iraq.  Left, the organization’s founder, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis.  (photo credit: JONATHAN SPYER)
A 2015 PHOTO OF a fighter for Ktaeb Hizballah, emerging as the key antagonist to the US in Iraq. Left, the organization’s founder, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis.
(photo credit: JONATHAN SPYER)
The ongoing, steady tempo of rocket attacks against US and official targets in Iraq continued this week. On Monday, two Katyusha rockets fell on the Jadriya neighborhood of Baghdad, close to the fortified Green Zone. There were no casualties.
Earlier, on September 27, five civilians (two women and three children) were killed when a Katyusha aimed at Baghdad airport fell short and fell on a private house. The five were members of the same family. On September 30, in an additional escalation, four rockets were launched at the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, and landed close to Erbil International Airport.
In all, around 80 rocket attacks have taken place against US targets in Iraq in the course of the last year. An organized campaign of violence and harassment against US targets in Iraq is under way.
So who is responsible for the current surge of attacks, and what is their purpose?
The areas from which the rockets have been launched appear almost exclusively to be neighborhoods and regions controlled by the pro-Iran Shia militias.
A previously unknown organization, Usbat al-Thaireen, has taken responsibility for a large proportion of the attacks. The organization was formally launched on March 14, 2020, on the same day as an attack on the Taji military base, where US forces were present.
“Usbat al-Thaireen” is almost certainly a convenient label for the insurgent activities of established Shia militias. Specifically the 10,000-strong Kataib Hezbollah movement, with its extensive networks across the country, appears to be the central player in this emergent insurgency. The smaller Asaib Ahl al-Haq group also plays a role. But it is Kataib Hezbollah which is emerging as the key antagonist of the US in Iraq.
Kataib Hezbollah, founded by the late Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in 2003, perceives itself as a kind of elite force among the plethora of IRGC-linked, pro-Iran armed groups in Iraq. It lacks the establishment image and the bureaucracy of the larger Badr Organization, which plays a formal political role alongside its paramilitary capacity (and which retains a formal presence in the current Iraqi government). KH also appears to constitute a favored organization in the eyes of the IRGC, benefiting from extensive direct contacts with, and training by, IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah personnel.
According to a study published this week by Iraqi researcher Hamdi Malik, “[Kataib Hezbollah]’s ambitions have expanded enormously, and the militia has become the most reliable proxy for Iran to further its ambitions in Iraq. In Lebanon, Hezbollah plays this role. In Yemen, it is the Houthi Ansar Allah that helps Iran expand its influence. In Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah is emerging as the main group that implements Iran’s plans.”
The reach and activities of this militia go far beyond occasional rocket attacks. The organization, Malik notes, controls the powerful internal affairs force of the Popular Mobilization Units, the gathering of mainly Shia militias raised to fight ISIS in 2014 which is now an official part of the official security forces.
KH maintains extensive economic interests of its own, many based on extortion. An exhaustive study by the late Iraqi researcher Husham al-Hashimi, who was assassinated, almost certainly by the Shia militias, in July, probably for writing the report, documents the militias’ activities in this regard. But this mafia-like side of KH’s activities has long been known. This author, for example, wrote from Baghdad in June 2015 about KH’s threats to its political opponents and practice of extortion in the city.
KH also controls the al-Qaim-Albu Kamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria. This crossing point forms a vital node along the land corridor maintained by Iran for the transport of men and material from Iran itself to the front lines facing Israel in southwest Syria and southern Lebanon. KH ensures that no representatives of the governments of either Iraq or Syria can approach this area without the permission of the pro-Iranian forces.
The organization, alongside other pro-Iran groups, has in recent months begun a campaign of assassination of its political opponents. Most prominent among those murdered so far is the aforementioned researcher Hashimi. But tens of others in recent months have disappeared, or been forced to seek exile in Iraqi Kurdistan, to which the Shia militias have only limited access.
The US appears to have now identified Kataib Hezbollah as its main enemy among the Shia militias of Iraq. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Iraq in late September, made clear the US intention to close its embassy in Baghdad (and move the remaining consular representation to Kurdish-controlled Erbil) should the attacks continue and the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi fail to confront the militias.
Pompeo, according to David Ignatius quoting an Iraqi media source in his Washington Post column on September 26, said that “if our forces withdraw, and the embassy is closed in this way, we will liquidate everyone who has been proven to be involved in these acts.” Ignatius noted that according to the article, Pompeo specifically named Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
It is far from clear whether Kadhimi will take the necessary action, or even whether he could, should he wish to. His efforts, so far, have consisted of arresting 13 members of the organization on suspicion of involvement in the rocket attacks – and then releasing them under pressure a few days later.
The Iraqi prime minister lacks a strong political base of his own, and the economic importance of Iraq’s relationship with Iran would likely act as a further disincentive. Of course, the economic element of preserving the links to the US is no less vital. The Iraqi prime minister’s natural preferred path will be to seek to placate both sides.
THERE IS a direct Israeli concern in all this.
In addition to the al-Qaim border crossing, the IRGC also seeks to control a second corridor from Iran across Iraq, via Diyala, Salah a-Din and Ninawa plains, and then to Sinjar and the border with Syria. The missiles launched at Erbil airport came from within this area.
Kataib Hezbollah, meanwhile, is in the process of building up its missile capacity. The group is widely considered to have been responsible for the attack on the Saudi Aramco facilities in May 2019. Just over a year ago, there was deep concern in Israel at the possibility that Iran might supply missiles with the range to reach Israel to the KH-controlled areas in western Iraq. A number of Israeli raids took place in July and August against KH and other militia facilities. Since then, the issue has gone quiet.
There was informed speculation that the US had asked Israel to desist, and that the two countries had divided up responsibilities, with Israel free to act over the skies of Syria, and the US handling the Iranian threat in Iraq.
This issue has not disappeared, however, and Israeli planners will be carefully watching the growing strength and defiance of KH, the ineffectuality of the government in Baghdad against it, and the developing US response.
Those who thought that the deaths of Qasem Soleimani and Muhandis on January 3, 2020, dealt a terminal blow to the Iranian militia project in Iraq should revise their conclusions.
The writer is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, 2017).