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A Powerful Iran-Backed Militia Is Losing Influence in Iraq
The Iraqi government is finally starting to make progress in its attempt to curb the influence of Kataib Hezbollah.
BAGHDAD—Five months after its charismatic leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed by a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport, the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah’s influence on Iraq may be quietly eroding.
Despite an institutional void since widespread protests across Shiite-majority central and southern Iraq forced the previous government to resign late in 2019 and the international coalition’s recent withdrawal from several Iraqi bases, moves are afoot to more fully integrate some Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) factions into government chains of command and structures that existed prior to 2014.
If Iraq’s new government manages to do so, it could reduce the influence of powerful armed groups with questionable loyalty to the Iraqi state.
The PMU were officially formed in 2014 through a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for volunteers to fight against the Islamic State in order to defend Shiite holy sites and Iraq in general. They played a key role in the country’s territorial defeat of the transnational terrorist group.
Several of the brigades within the PMU belong to armed groups that had existed for many years prior to the PMU’s formation in 2014. These factions have long been supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Others set up in 2014 and loyal to Sistani are known as “shrine units.”
On April 23, the official announcement that four of these shrine-linked PMU would be placed directly under the prime minister’s office seemed to signal an attempt to draw some of the factions from the more than 100,000-strong motley fighting force further away from Iranian and Kataib Hezbollah influence.
Some of those in the PMU have previous experience in Iraq’s armed forces. Liwa Ali al-Akbar commander Ali Hamdani, for example, told me he had previously served as an air force officer when I interviewed him in Hawija during the operation to retake the city from the Islamic State.
Also answering directly to the prime minister’s office is Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), which played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State and were supported and trained by the international anti-ISIS coalition.
The CTS has long been accused by pro-Iran factions of being too close to the United States. The international coalition quietly continued to support the CTS after it temporarily halted its training and advisory missions for other Iraqi forces earlier this year amid the surge in U.S.-Iranian tension and a vote by the Iraqi parliament to call for the removal of all foreign forces. Both Iraqi army and CTS officers have told Foreign Policy that the coalition’s withdrawal would deprive the CTS of intelligence that is key to the fight against the Islamic State.
Kataib Hezbollah is only one of several Iran-linked armed groups active in Iraq but it has long been considered the greatest danger to the Iraqi government’s aspiration to be a proper state in the classical sense—by exerting a monopoly over the use of force within its territory. It also holds territory in Iraq which even government officials are allegedly prevented from entering.
Some of Kataib Hezbollah’s brigades have been incorporated into Iraqi government-salaried PMU, most likely as part of an attempt to rein in the group. Many of its fighters nevertheless continue to cross in and out of Iran and Syria, according to local security officials in border areas.
Two of Kataib Hezbollah’s government-incorporated brigades were targeted in a U.S. airstrike in late December near Qaim, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, killing at least 25 fighters. This in turn led to an attack on the U.S. embassy by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah and other armed factions—which was followed by the drone strike on Muhandis and Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Suleimani, on Jan. 3.
Few Iraqis seem willing to speak openly about Kataib Hezbollah, and none will provide details about its hierarchy. The shadowy armed group “is happy to keep it that way,” I was told in 2019 by one so-called PMU media volunteer who had helped to arrange meetings with commanders.
Muhandis, who was also officially deputy chief of the Shiite-dominated, government-salaried PMU, was a charismatic strategist and able to coopt some local Sunni fighting groups and their commanders as well as part of the fight against the Islamic State. He was key to providing them with weapons and support to retake their home territory.
The most well known was Yazan al-Jabouri, a native of Salahuddin province whom I interviewed in Baghdad in March. Despite Jabouri’s long-standing close relationship with Muhandis, he noted that even to him Kataib Hezbollah was “like a ghost.”
The onetime Sunni protégé of Muhandis said there had long been tension between the Iran-linked armed group and the Iraqi intelligence services, because of both the secrecy employed by the Iran-linked group and various threats.
Kataib Hezbollah, he said, had at various times threatened the parliament speaker, Mohamed al-Halbousi, and the head of intelligence, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who became Iraq’s prime minister on May 7.
Kataib Hezbollah strongly opposed Kadhimi, and have accused him of being linked to the killing of Muhandis and Suleimani through providing intelligence to the United States.
Even as Kadhimi takes the country’s reins, Kataib Hezbollah continues to occupy the entire town previously known as Jurf al-Sakr in Babil province, allegedly to protect the nearby Iraqi Shiite holy city of Karbala against possible Islamic State attacks coming from Sunni-majority Anbar province.
The town was renamed Jurf al-Nasr (nasr means “victory”)—though its original residents, many of whom are now IDPs in Anbar, continue to refer to it as Jurf al-Sakr. Kataib Hezbollah continues to prevent its Sunni residents from returning—and allegedly anyone else, including government officials, from entering. When I asked public officials how to get permission to report from the area, they responded: “even we are not allowed to enter.”
One CTS officer claimed that there are British-Iranian engineers working in the town as well as weapons factories. Halbousi told me in a 2018 interview that he believed many of the men who disappeared from the Razaza checkpoint during anti-Islamic State operations might be held in the town, since no one except Kataib Hezbollah is allowed in. The Iran-backed armed group also seems to have recently occupied an area in the capital’s Green Zone near the prime minister’s office.
After reports that the Green Zone land had been given to them by the prime minister’s office were denied, Iraq analyst Michael Knights noted in a tweet that “KH don’t have to wait for the PMO to give them something. They just take it, and then try to keep it.”
Whatever the Iraqi government and other stakeholders are doing to separate other armed groups from Kataib Hezbollah is being done quietly because of the risks such moves could entail.
Jabouri noted that Muhandis had been able to exert significant control over the vast array of Iran-linked Iraqi armed groups. He is now concerned that, with Muhandis gone, there is no one able to do the same.
For example, he said, the PMU group known as Saraya al-Khorasani was forced to leave Salahuddin province after “we asked Muhandis to tell them to do so” because their fighters had been “treating the [local Sunni] population as if they [Saraya al-Khorasani] were an occupying force.”
The risk is that Kataib Hezbollah, without Muhandis at its helm, may now become even more uncontrollable in its attempt to prevent a loss of power and influence.
In reporting on Iraq’s protest-hit central and southern areas over the past few months, vague reference was often made to “parties”—afraid as many people were to even mention the names of several Iran-linked armed groups initially—as being responsible for killing protesters involved in the mass demonstrations that started in October 2019, as well as assassinations of activists. This demonstrates the fact that some locals now find it hard to imagine political parties are not linked to armed groups.
A number of activists cited Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization—both of which are Iran-linked armed groups with parts incorporated into government-salaried PMU but which existed long before 2014 and which are now involved in politics—as being the most dangerous in Nasiriyah. Baghdad locals can name specific streets in the Iraqi capital where Kataib Hezbollah allegedly acts as a sort of mafia.
Support for Kataib Hezbollah seems thin on the ground in both Baghdad and the south. However, as is the case in any area with high unemployment and poverty, there is fertile terrain for recruitment among young men for anyone with the money to pay them.
Some Iraqi politicians have told me in interviews over the past six months of reporting on anti-government protests that the dizzying array of armed groups in the country must get more fully involved in politics in order for them to put down their guns and compete at a different level.
Kataib Hezbollah, however, has shown little serious interest in trading its weapons for parliamentary representation, according to several MPs Foreign Policy spoke to—and it continues to ignore demands that it leave areas where locals see it as unnecessary or a threat to stability.
Al-Halbousi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, told me in an interview before being appointed to his present position, when he was serving as governor of Anbar province, that he wanted to thank Muhandis for the Shiite-led PMU’s help against the Islamic State.
However, he argued, they should now leave the Sunni-majority province. Their presence was no longer necessary, he said, and was causing problems with the local population. Years later, Kataib Hezbollah fighters and their weapons are still crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border in western Anbar.
Indeed, over years of reporting from western Anbar since the operations to retake the area from Islamic State in late 2017, I have witnessed Sunni locals complaining in private about the Shiite-led forces’ alleged land grabs, cross-border smuggling negatively affecting the local market, and, especially, missing male relatives they say have simply “disappeared.” Some have specifically named Kataib Hezbollah as the likely perpetrator of many of these disappearances.
There has recently been an uptick in Islamic State attacks in Diyala province, along Iraq’s border with Iran, as well as continuing security incidents in the nearby provinces of Kirkuk and Salahuddin.
“Kataib Hezbollah is very, very active in Diyala near the Iranian border now and they are constantly moving back and forth across it,” a local security official, who declined to be named as he had not been authorized to speak to the media, told Foreign Policy via a WhatsApp call in late April.
This likely means that Kataib Hezbollah is moving weapons and fighters across the border from Iran, which could pose a risk to anyone seen as opposing them.
The fact that Kataib Hezbollah strongly opposed Kadhimi for the position of prime minister, but that he still received enough support to form a government, may point to an erosion of the group’s influence.
Kadhimi’s cabinet passed a vote of confidence early on May 7.
This, alongside the government-led move to distance some of the PMU from Kataib Hezbollah and others, seems to signal some halting progress toward reducing influence by Iran-backed armed groups. Many in Iraq feel this is necessary.
A prime minister openly opposed by Kataib Hezbollah, with parts of the PMU now answering to him—and a government program that calls for bringing all arms under state control—may very well mark an important first step.