Kataib Hezbollah’s influence in Iraq may be quietly eroding

Few Iraqis seem willing to speak openly about Kataib Hezbollah, and none will provide details about its hierarchy.
Wednesday 13/05/2020
Kataib Hezbollah Iraqi militia gather ahead of the funeral of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, last January. (REUTERS)
Kataib Hezbollah Iraqi militia gather ahead of the funeral of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, last January. (REUTERS)

LONDON--Five months after US missiles killed Iran’s most important general and its top militia leader as they were visiting Baghdad, the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah may be quietly losing its grip in the country.

Not only are US forces still present in Iraq, but the killings have created space for a new Iraqi government to assert a degree of independence from Tehran. The clearest indication of this is the ascendance of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

There seem to be current moves to more fully integrate some Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) factions into government chains of command and structures that existed prior to 2014.

If Iraq’s new government succeeds in doing this, it could reduce the influence of powerful armed groups with suspected loyalty to Tehran.

 The PMU were officially formed in 2014 through a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for volunteers to fight against ISIS in order to defend Shia holy sites and Iraq in general. They played a key role in the country’s territorial defeat of ISIS.

 Several of the brigades within the PMU belong to armed groups that 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 (IRGC).

Others set up in 2014 and loyal to Sistani are known as “shrine units.” On April 23, an official announcement that four of these shrine-linked PMUs 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. 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 ISIS and was 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 US-Iranian tension and a vote by the Iraqi parliament to call for the removal of all foreign forces.

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 that 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 US airstrike in late December near Qaim, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, killing at least 25 fighters.

This led to an attack on the US Embassy by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah and other armed factions — which was followed by the drone strike on PMU deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Soleimani on January 3.

Few Iraqis seem willing to speak openly about Kataib Hezbollah, and none will provide details about its hierarchy. Muhandis, in addition to being a leader of the Shia-dominated, government-salaried PMU, was a strategist and able to coopt some local Sunni fighting groups and their commanders as part of the fight against ISIS. He was key to providing them with weapons and support to retake their home territory.

However, there have recently been reports of 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 had at various times threatened 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 accused him of being linked to the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani 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 Shia holy city of Karbala against possible ISIS attacks coming from Sunni-majority Anbar province. 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 involved.

The risk is that Kataib Hezbollah, without Muhandis at its helm, may now become even more uncontrollable in its efforts to prevent a loss of power and influence. 

However, the erosion of the group’s influence is underway and there is no single event to which one can attribute this reality. In fact, nationwide protests against corruption and Iranian influence, as well as internal strife within and among Iranian-backed militias, helped Kadhimi’s rise. At the same time, Soleimani’s death was a factor. 

(With news agencies.)