US, Iran-backed forces in Iraq may be edging toward showdown

Iran's new Quds Force commander is trying to reunify Iraqi Shiite militias, and escalation against US forces seems to be his strategy.

al-monitor Iraqis fly the Kataib Hezbollah flag (far left and far right) and other banners while storming the US Embassy in Baghdad, Dec. 31, 2019. Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

أبر 7, 2020

Tensions are rising once again between the United States and Iran, as several Katyusha rockets struck early April 6 near the facility of the US oil company Halliburton in southern Iraq — the latest in what appears to be a series of messages from Tehran and its proxies urging US military forces to get out.

No casualties or serious damages were reported, but the attack follows a number of assaults on military bases in Iraq housing US forces.

The strike came two days after militias published a statement against the US presence in Iraq: “You respect only the language of force, and on that basis you will be treated.” This is the message eight Iran-backed Shiite militias sent to US forces in Iraq in a joint statement published April 4. The statement came only days after Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani paid his first visit to Iraq since he succeeded Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani as the new head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Soleimani was assassinated in early January on Iraqi soil by US forces.

The signatories of the joint statement were Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada, among others.

Kataib Hezbollah, the group that has been most active against US forces in recent months, had issued its own warnings two days earlier. In an April 2 statement, Kataib Hezbollah said: “We will not kill you, if you leave Iraq."

Kataib Hezbollah was reacting to US President Donald Trump's warning to Iran and its allies the previous day, when he tweeted that Iran or its proxies were "planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq."

"If this happens," he said, "Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

Kataib Hezbollah’s statement also carried a clear threat: “We warn [US forces] against any aggression carried out against our patient people and their militant factions prepared to sacrifice."

These exchanges come as US forces in Iraq are undergoing a huge relocation there. In recent weeks the US has handed four military bases in northern and western Iraq over to Iraqi forces. The most recent one was Habbaniya air base April 4.

At the same time, the United States is consolidating its presence at its most important base in the country. The Ain al-Asad military base in Anbar province has been fortified recently in anticipation of further attacks from inside Iraq and beyond.

“The US is moving defensive systems into Iraq," the US Central Command announced April 2. This follows CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie’s confirmation March 13 that the United States was moving Patriot surface-to-air missile systems into Iraq.

"We have put the preparatory material in place that allow us to establish Patriot positions inside Iraq. … The Patriot is something we would use against the types of rockets that Iran used in their state-on-state attack of early January when they struck al-Asad.”

McKenzie was referring to the IRGC’s ballistic missile attack on Ain al-Asad in retaliation for Soleimani's assassination.

The United States is making sure Ain al-Asad is also fortified against rocket and mortar attacks — the type of attack frequently used against US forces in Iraq by Iran-backed Shiite militias. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source affiliated with the Pentagon told Al-Monitor that the United States has already deployed C-RAM systems to Ain al-Asad to counter rockets, artillery and mortar shells. 

In addition, one Patriot battery was deployed to Harir airbase in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

While Trump accuses Iran and its allies of plotting attacks against the United States in Iraq, Iran-backed factions see the US repositioning of forces and the deployment of anti-missile systems as a preparatory move to strike them.

Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Mohammad Mohyee warned against four possible moves by the United States.

“We warn the US forces [against] committing any aggression against the Iraqi people and their factions, carrying out any attempted military coup against the political process, undermining the leaders of the [Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] or assassinating influential Iraqi national figures,” he told the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur on March 31.

Last week, The New York Times cited sources in the Pentagon as saying the United States is preparing for a significant strike against Kataib Hezbollah with the aim to “destroy” the paramilitary faction.

The Iraqi government is also wary of US troops movements in the country. Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned US forces not to attack any group other than the Islamic State. In a March 29 statement, Abdul Mahdi said, “We follow with concern the intelligence gathered by our forces about the presence of unauthorized flights near military zones.” He added, “We have previously condemned such actions and warned against their dangerous consequences, and today we also warn of the danger of any strike without the approval of the Iraqi government."

The deaths of Soleimani and PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis have spawned major disagreements among various Iraqi factions. In the absence of a unifying figure such as Muhandis, the factions haven't succeeded in appointing a new figure in his position. Last month, Kataib Hezbollah tried to persuade other militant groups to appoint Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, a Kataib Hezbollah commander, to the post. Sources close to the PMU told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the disagreement is deep even among the closest Iran allies. This account is in line with other reports, such as one published April 1 by Reuters.

But the Quds Force's Ghaani seems to be trying to bring back some sort of unity and discipline among groups loyal to Iran. In his visit to Baghdad, he held talks with various Iraqi factions.

The joint statement of the eight Shiite militias can be seen as the first fruit of his efforts to keep Iraq available as Iran’s strategic depth. That plan could be a lifeline if there is a political and military campaign against the United States in Iraq.

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