Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 7 July 2020

Iraqi militia hit by US plays crucial role for Iran in Syria

Kataib Hezbollah helped Tehran prop up President Bashar Al Assad and reinforce strategic border area

Fighters of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia take part in a military parade in Baghdad to mark Al Quds Day on May 31, 2019. AFP
Fighters of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia take part in a military parade in Baghdad to mark Al Quds Day on May 31, 2019. AFP

The Iraqi Shiite militia targeted by US air raids has played a crucial role for Tehran as forward troops of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps in a strategic region of Syria.

Tensions between the United States and dozens of Iran-supported Iraqi militias burst into open confrontation on Sunday, when the US attacked positions of the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria.

The militia is one of many loosely grouped under Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, which is nominally integrated into the Iraqi state and has the loyalty of a large proportion of the Iraqi parliament.

The US said the raids were in response to a rocket attack on an American military base in Kirkuk last week that killed an American contractor. The military said it attacked five Kataib Hezbollah targets including weapons depots and command positions.

Two of the five targets were in a part of eastern Syria bordering Iraq. The area stretches from near Jordan to Turkey and encompasses parts of the Euphrates River Valley. It is an important link in the supply line from Iran to Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, whose organisation and guerrilla tactics Kataib Hezbollah has copied.

But Kataib Hezbollah traces its origins firmly to Iran, and its deployment in eastern Syria indicates Tehran’s high level of trust in the group.

Together with other Iraqi militia, as well as Shiite militants from Lebanon and Afghanistan, Kataib Hezbollah invoked protection of Shiite shrines and fighting ISIS as the main reasons for their presence in Syria. But they focused on helping Mr Al Assad put down the revolt against his rule, contributing significantly to the regime’s siege warfare and the depopulation and forced transfer of inhabitants of Sunni rebel areas.

Kataib Hezbollah's commander, Jamal Ibrahimi, founded the group in the mid-2000s. Mr Ibrahimi, who has a background in engineering, had served since the 1980s as a militia operative linked with Qassem Suleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force overseeing Iran’s foreign militia clients.

Known by the nom de guerre Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, Mr Ibrahimi, formerly headed the Badr Corps, the military arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was founded in Tehran in the 1980s as an opposition group against Saddam Hussein.

He is one of several members of the Supreme Council who sought independence from the Al Hakims, the Iraqi political-religious family from Najaf that dominates the group, and branched out with Iranian support.

According to the Wilson Centre, a research institute in Washington, Al Muhandis has Iranian citizenship. He was convicted and sentenced to death in Kuwait for the 1983 bombings of the US and French embassies there but escaped the country.

In a report on pro-Iran militia in Iraq, the Centre said that “from his years in Iran, Al Muhandis developed a close relationship with Suleimani, who once referred to him on Iranian television as a dear brother and ‘living martyr’.”

The US classified Kataib Hezbollah as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in 2009. The State Department said at the time that it is a “radical Shiite Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, US, and Coalition targets in Iraq”.

In March this year, the US listed Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba, another Hezbollah copycat affiliated with the Hashed Al Shaabi and active in Syria in support of the Assad regime and Iran, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Together with Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba are the main Iraqi Shiite groups Washington classifies as terrorist.

For years Kataib Hezbollah attacked American forces in Iraq and formed death squads who massacred Sunni civilians while the US was focused on crushing a Sunni insurgency which later became dominated by Al Qaeda and later ISIS.

The attacks by Iran-backed militias, which killed and maimed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq, were somewhat forgotten in Washington as the Barack Obama administration sought a nuclear deal with Tehran in isolation from Iranian actions in the region.

But the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq under the Obama administration proved to be temporary.

By attacking Kataib Hezbollah’s assets in eastern Syria the US may have hit the group’s weak spot. The group is operating in forbidding desert terrain and far from its support base, which is itself being undermined by the public anger being directed at Tehran’s clients amid Iraq’s popular uprising against the Shiite-dominated political class.

Updated: December 30, 2019 10:45 PM

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