Iranian-backed militias spent their Sunday evening concerned that rocket fire directed at the US embassy might have caused deaths and injuries and would result in their leaders being targeted. Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s Qais Khazali was in an undisclosed location while other leaders kept far from the limelight. They know that an American drone with precision guided missiles could turn them into an inferno the way Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed on January 3 in a US drone strike. Kataib Hezbollah denied its involvement, claiming that, while the attack was justified, “it wasn’t us.”
The Iranian-backed militias, called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or Hashd al-Shaabi are a group of some 100,000 men who joined to fight ISIS after a fatwa by Ayatollah Sistani in 2014 encouraged Shi’ites to sign up. Many of these militias already existed in another form, such as Hadi al-Amiri’s Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah which is closely linked to Iran’s IRGC, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which had once been more closely linked to Muqtada al-Sadr.
Muhandis and Amiri were close friends and allies and had grown up in the IRGC fighting alongside Iran against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. In the 2000s they turned their guns on the US and then on Sunni extremists. By 2017 they had become an official paramilitary force as the PMU.
But things began to change in May 2019. The PMU’s factions had already expressed support for removing the US from Iraq. Qais Khazali even went to Lebanon and said the PMU would fight Israel. Kataib Hezbollah sent units to Syria. The US responded by sanctioning one of the group called Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba and then sanctioning Khazali specifically in December 2019. Meanwhile, Iran-US tensions rose and Tehran ordered some PMU units to fire rockets at US bases and the US embassy compound in Baghdad.
The US alleges that Kataib Hezbollah was closely involved in an attack that killed a US contractor on December 27. The US accused Iran of ordered up to 12 attacks in the fall of 2019. The response was shocking to the PMU: The US killed dozens of Kataib Hezbollah members and took out Muhandis as he met IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
In the first three weeks of January groups continued harassing fire against the US embassy, but Sunday’s rocket fire was different. Three of five katyusha rockets hit the embassy compound and one of them hit a dining facility. Fearful that the US might respond if there were casualties the PMU leaders, including Amiri, ran to release statements. “It wasn’t me,” they said one after the other. Hadi al-Amiri claimed the rocket attack was an “act of sabotage” and Asaib ahl al-Haq denied that its “resistance” played a role. Amiri, who heads Iraq’s second largest party, claimed that attacks like the rocket attack would slow the US departure from Iraq and harm Iraqi sovereignty.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in November but hasn’t left office, condemned the attack on the embassy, as did the PMU. Illustrating Iran’s close link to Kataib Hezbollah it was IRNA in Iran that published Kataib Hezbollah’s statement regarding the attack upon the embassy. Denying involvement, the group said that the attack could weaken the Iraqi government at this sensitive time, stating: “Although it was a natural response to the US, it was not the right time to act.”
The militias prefer this plausible deniability because they hope it will mean there won’t be retaliation allowing them to continue to play a double game, presenting themselves as standing up for Iraqi sovereignty while also fulfilling their pro-Iranian agenda. The militias have been deeply involved in attacking protesters in Iraq over the last months, killing hundreds, and their role in harming the protesters tarnished their image.
Some of them believe that pushing things to crisis-point with the US will not only get them deeper support from the public but also from powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and from Iran. Sadr duly switched sides in late December, backing the PMU and now withdrawing support from the protesters.
However, the crisis moment the militias want may not be ready yet. They know if they harm Americans it will encourage the US to stay in Iraq. They want the US to leave through pressure. This means harassing the embassy with rocket fire but not killing anyone. So far they have been firing rockets closer and closer every week, a strategy of ratcheting up the chances of killing people through incremental escalation.
Iran’s proxies also like to spread conspiracies and misinformation, pretending that they didn’t conduct the attacks because “who benefits?,” as if it is the US attacking itself. This is a way to confuse the public. Iran has used the same disinformation in the Gulf in May and June, suggesting that outside players were behind the mining attacks on ships.
In Iraq they speak of a mysterious “third force.” The third force is the militias, backed by Iran. But they take off their uniforms and harm protesters and fire rockets and then pretend someone else did it. Rocket fire by night, respectable pro-Iranian political party by day.
Source » jpost