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Inside the rise of the shadowy Iran-backed militias in Iraq

Published: Updated:

On March 3, ten Iranian-made rockets struck Ain al-Asad air base in western Anbar province, the attack was the fourth to target US. interests in Iraq since February 15.

Since the US killing of Iran commander Qassem Soleimani and Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes in January 2020, Iran and its Iraqi proxies have conducted a covert war against western interests in Iraq that experts believe was mapped by Soleimani before his death.

Under the Trump administration, Iran escalated its kinetic action against western interests in Iran, by relying heavily on Iraqi militant groups. Such groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq received direct funding and training from Iran.

“Between May and October 2019, Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes increased the number of new “brands” or “facades” used to disguise the groups undertaking different kinds of attacks – against coalition, protestors and foreign embassies. This was an effort to avoid blame for mistakes or unpopular actions, especially approaching elections,” Michael Knights, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policies told Al Arabiya English.

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Asaib Ahl al-Haqq alongside Kata’ib Hezbollah led the campaign for the ouster of the United States from Iraq. The State Department designated Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and its leader, Qais al-Khazali, as a terrorist organization in 2020. According to a paper by Michael Knights for CTC, from October 2019 onwards, Kata’ib Hezbollah ensured delivery from Iran, through the Iran-Iraq border, of at least four truck containers of unguided rockets of 107mm-, 122mm-, and 240mm-caliber, Manportable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), and 70 anti-materiel rifles.

Kata’ib Hezbollah appears to have been behind several attacks against the United States namely a November 7, 2019, rocket attack on US forces, and then the December 27, 2019, killing of an American and the December 31, 2019, assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

“Such groups were trained and armed by Iran and adhere completely to its regional agenda and are behind most of the attacks targeting coalition troops,” said Iraqi strategic expert Muayed Juaych.

These attacks were a contributing factor to the US decision to kill al-Mohandes and Soleimani on January 3, 2020. Since the assassination of al-Mohandes, Kata’ib Hezbollah’s attacks against US interests have become increasingly covert in nature. Knights believes nonetheless that some of the 57 known rocket attacks on US and coalition forces in the first nine months of 2020 have been undertaken by Kata’ib Hezbollah, though to what proportion remains unclear.

Previously unheard-of shadowy groups have also emerged, continuing to claim responsibility for attacks against western interests. This has allowed pro-Iran militant groups within the Popular Mobilization Units affiliated to the Iraqi state to maintain their legitimate role within the state’s institutions while avoiding political backlash.

“New specialized networks were also built in Iran, using Iraqis with no previous criminal record, for assassinations. One is called Al Warithoon,” Knights said.

Since May 2019, several fake groups have endorsed western attacks, including Usbat al-Thaereen (League of the Revolutionaries), Saraya al-Muntaqim (Avenger Companies); Ashab al-Kahf (People of the Cave); Thar Muhandis (Revenge for Muhandis); Saraya Thawra Al-Ashreen Al-Thaniya (The Second 1920 Revolution Companies); and Qasim al-Jabbarin (Defeaters of the Global Arrogance, the latter referring to the United States). The latest attack in February of US positions at the Erbil airport, killing one coalition contractor and injuring several others, was claimed by Saraya Awliya al-Dam, “the Guardians of Blood,” a group experts link to Asaib Ahl al-Haqq.

According to Knights, Soleimani is the one to have proposed these new branding tactics to make it harder for militias to be held accountable by international players, the Iraqi government, or Iraqi public opinion. These new groups, he says, should be thought of brands for certain types of activities similar to “operations rooms” Middle Eastern extremists create to coordinate certain campaigns.

Juhaych explained that Iran is escalating its targeting of US troops and interests to put pressure on Washington, which has made clear its intent to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran.

“All of the militia networks are now using their numbers in the Popular Mobilization Units to hand off the cost of salaries to the Iraqi government, so they need less money from Iran,” Knights said.

This opinion was shared by Juhach, who believes that the PMU existing as part of the Iraqi military government infrastructure provides these militias with both the possibility to finance their troops, as well as territorial control – necessary for lucrative smuggling operations.

“As a result, they can survive even if Iran cut them off – but there is no reason for Iran to back away from them,” Knights said.

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