The United States launched air strikes against Iranian forces and allied militias in Iraq and Syria on Friday, with President Joe Biden vowing more to come in retaliation for a deadly drone attack on a US base in Jordan. The Pentagon particularly has its sights on Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the main militias responsable for attacking US troops.
The United States blamed a January 28 drone attack on forces backed by Iran, but did not strike inside the country’s territory when retaliating on Friday, with both Washington and Tehran seemingly keen to avoid an all-out war.
Attacks on US troops in the Middle East have reached an unprecedented level since the October 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement.
There have been at least 165 drone strikes and rocket attacks since mid-October against the positions of US forces and those of the anti-Islamic State (IS) group coalition in Iraq and Syria. Yet no human losses had been reported until the latest attack on January 28, when a drone attack at the Tour 22 logistics base in Jordan near the Syrian border killed three American soldiers and injured 40 others.
This had been unheard of since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas, said David Rigoulet-Roze, a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (IFAS) think-tank, for whom “a red line has been potentially crossed”. US President Joe Biden vowed the evening of the attack that the US “shall respond”. Biden later said in a written statement that the United States “will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner (of) our choosing”.
Iran has denied it was behind the drone attack. But Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said the attack has “the footprints of Kataeb Hezbollah” – an Iran-backed militant group in Iraq which the Pentagon has blamed for previous violence.
The White House proffered a similar accusation, with spokesperson John Kirby during a press conference attributing the drone attack to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias. This grouping “includes” the militant group Kataeb Hezbollah, he noted, while specifying that the deadly attack “certainly bore the mark” of this influential pro-Iran armed group in Iraq.
At the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader
The Iraqi militia Kataeb Hezbollah – not to be confused with Lebanon’s Hezbollah – is one of the Iraqi militias “closest to Iran”, said Rigoulet-Roze. “They follow the principle of ‘velayat-e faqih’, which means they recognise the Iranian Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] as their supreme commander.”
The former leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, previously the right-hand man of the powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, died alongside his boss in 2020 in a US strike on their convoy in Baghdad.
Classified as a “terrorist” group by Washington and targeted by sanctions, the Kataeb Hezbollah faction has been hit in recent weeks by US strikes in Iraq, along with Harakat al-Nujaba, another fiercely anti-US faction.
Most of the attacks targeting Americans in recent months have been claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which includes Kataeb Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba. This nebulous group of fighters from pro-Iran armed militias says they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians. Yet above all they seek the departure of some 2,500 American soldiers deployed in Iraq as part of the international coalition fighting against the IS group. Their demand has been heard: in the volatile context, the US and Iraq recently announced they would begin talks about formulating “a specific and clear timeline” for the future of US and other foreign troops in Iraq, with a timeline for reducing their presence.
Washington’s former allies
Among the insurgent groups which compose the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah is undoubtedly the most influential. It is also affiliated with the Hashed al-Shaabi faction, which is made up of former Iraqi paramilitaries affiliated with Iran and “has a major role” within Kataeb Hezbollah, said Rigoulet-Roze. The current leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Fadak al-Muhammadawi, is also Hashed al-Shaabi’s chief of staff.
Hashed al-Shaabi was launched in June 2014 to support Iraqi forces against the IS group. Together, alongside the anti-IS group coalition led by Washington, they contributed to the defeat inflicted on the IS group in 2017 by Iraq.
“There was an objective alliance between the coalition, therefore the Americans, and the Hashed militias against Daesh [the IS group]. The two fought on the same side, with some on the ground and others in the air. After 2017, these groups found their Iranian- and therefore anti-American- DNA,” said Rigoulet-Roze.
Hashed al-Shaabi is currently composed of dozens of groups and has more than 160,000 members, according to estimates by the AFP. The US think tank The Washington Institute estimated that the militia has around 230,000 members. Yet neither the Iraqi authorities nor the organisation communicates on the numbers of its forces.
The exact number of militiamen in Kataeb Hezbollah remains unknown. According to Rigoulet-Roze, the figure ranges from 3,000 to 30,000, since some of its forces are mobilized only occasionally.
‘The executive branch has no control’
Faced with the increase in attacks against US troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government feels caught in the crossfire. It was brought to power by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties and a parliamentary majority including Hashed al-Shaabi, whose deputies have held seats in Iraq’s parliament since 2018.
Theoretically, Hashed al-Shaabi and its components, including Kataeb Hezbollah, are part of the country’s regular forces, according to a law passed in 2016. “This is largely a procedural question. In reality, the executive branch has no control over these militias. These groups benefit from a large margin of autonomy, and this is a problem for the executive power of [Iraqi Prime Minister] Mohamed Chia al-Soudani,” said Rigoulet-Roze.
Faced with the increase in attacks against US troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government feels caught in the crossfire. It was brought to power by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties and a parliamentary majority including Hashed al-Shaabi, whose deputies had sat in Iraq’s parliament since 2018.
After the threats of the US president, who said he held Iran “responsible” for having provided the weapons for the strike that killed the American soldiers, Kataeb Hezbollah announced on January 30, “the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces in order to prevent embarrassing the Iraqi government”.
The statement, signed by the group’s Secretary General Abou Hussein al-Hamidawi, mentioned the Iraqi government purely as a matter of form. Iran most likely intervened behind the scenes to calm the situation, knowing that there was now the risk of uncontrolled escalation with the White House. Yet the US reprisals on January 2 against Iran-linked factions could prompt them to reconsider their decision.
This article was translated from the original in French.