The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) condemned the December 29, 2019, American attack on the K1 base of the Hizbullah Brigades (Kataib Hizbullah), one of the pro-Iranian militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq (PMF, al-Hashd al-Shabi), calling the strike a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The IRGC insisted that the Iraqis and the state security forces “reserve the natural right to avenge and respond” to the attack in the al-Qa’im area of Al Anbar Province near the Syrian border, which killed at least 25 people.
The IRGC claimed the United States had perpetrated a “terror attack against the holy and noble al-Hashd al-Shabi, which is at the front line of the war against the Islamic State” and that the United States is the primary source of instability in the region. The IRGC also referred to the “fraudulent Zionist entity” (Israel) and warned that “a day will come when the holy rage and resolve of the resistance front will strike Israel.”2
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, retweeting U.S. President Trump, argued the U.S. attack was a retaliation against the PMF because “the PMF crippled the Islamic State, which the Americans had created.”3 Khamenei added that Trump was mistaken to blame Iran for the attack. “You can’t do a damn thing,” he said, echoing Khomeini’s famous slogan.
Iranian spokesmen denied that Iran was involved in the earlier rocket fire on the Iraqi bases in Kirkuk that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). The rockets killed an American civilian contractor and wounded others. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei also said that the U.S. attack on the Kataib Hizbullah base – which was a response to the attack in Kirkuk – was predicated on “a claim lacking any factual basis [that] cannot justify the bombardment and killing of civilians in contravention of international law.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Sayyed Abbas Musawi called the U.S. strike a “criminal act of terrorism.”
Lebanese Hizbullah, in the same vein as its patron Iran, denounced the “criminal American attack” on al-Hashd al-Shabi, the “spearhead for the struggle against the Islamic State,” and on the people and sovereignty of Iraq. The group said the attack “reveals the true face of the United States as an enemy of the Iraqi people” – who are struggling against the Islamic State, which, in turn, enjoys U.S. support. In a threatening tone, the group said, “There is no doubt that those who decided in their stupidity to carry out this attack will soon discover its ramifications and its outcomes.”
Likewise, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of al-Hashd al-Shabi who holds Iranian citizenship and is close to the IRGC, threatened that “the blood of the Iraqi dead and wounded will not be shed in vain, and the response against the American forces will be harsh.” Muhandis was formerly deputy commander of al-Hashd al-Shabi. When outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi decided to alter the structure of the force in an attempt to incorporate the various militias into the Iraqi army, al-Muhandis became “chief of staff.”
Al-Hashd al-Shabi, funded and trained by Iran, constitutes an overarching framework of at least 40 militias that were established in line with a fatwa issued by the Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani soon after the Islamic State declared a caliphate from the city of Mosul in mid-2014.
Israel Remains the Target
The IRGC announcement associated Israel with the attack in Iraq in collaboration with the United States, and the reactions of Lebanese Hizbullah and the Shiite militias loyal to Iran attest to the fact that these groups view Israel as a legitimate target of retaliation for the American attack. By mentioning both the “resistance front” and Israel in the IRGC announcement, Iran is signaling that the struggle in Iraq is an important pillar in its battle against Israel.
Iran continues – through Lebanese Hizbullah, which it sees as the model for the other Shiite groups it is cultivating in the region – to bring Shiite commanders and fighters from the “Shiite Foreign Legion” to southern Lebanon to “experience” the confrontation with Israel from up close. Commanders of the Shiite militias al-Hashd al-Shabi, the al-Bakr Brigade, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have already visited southern Lebanon.4
The repeated attacks by Kataib Hizbullah on American interests in Iraq were directed by Iran. The recent U.S. attacks against KH bases in Syria and Iraq are clear signals to Tehran that its vital “assets” in Iraq and probably Syria are part of any future retaliation equation. Iran, through its regional proxies (in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon), could retaliate for Israeli and or American strikes by targeting U.S. assets in Iraq (southern oil fields, bases, or diplomatic missions in Iraq). Alternatively, it can choose to attack U.S. regional allies using its proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen, as it did against Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure and shipping lines in the Red Sea.
The Iranian Policy Costs Iraqi Blood
Iran continues to view Iraq and the Shiite militias operating there as critical elements in its efforts to store and transfer weapons to Syria and Lebanon, particularly precision rockets and missiles, and as a way to mobilize Shiite fighters for future battles with Israel and the United States. The ongoing Israeli efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria have prompted Iran to redeploy and store some of its weaponry in Iraq, thereby advancing its plans in the region with the help of the militias under its authority. This strategy has provoked widespread criticism in Iraq of this conduct, in particular, and Iran’s overall activity and presence in Iraq, in general. This resentment erupted in the ongoing demonstrations in Iraqi cities and in the attacks on the Iranian consulates in southern Iraq,5 along with recent calls by Iraqi demonstrators to boycott Iranian products.
Iraqi demonstrators calling for Iran’s expulsion from the country assert that Iraq is paying for Iran’s wars with the blood of Iraqi citizens, and Iran strives to promote its interests at Iraq’s expense.7
Al-Sadr Condemns the Behavior of Shiite Militias under Iran’s Sponsorship
After the American attack on December 29, 2019, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement and one of Iraq’s senior Shiite figures, said he had warned in the past of Iraq being pulled into regional and international conflicts and emphasized that Iraq’s citizens would not accept such reckless behavior. Al-Sadr criticized the conduct of “some of the military militias” (meaning those loyal to Iran) that prefer alignment with Iran to being part of the Iraqi security forces. He criticized the American attack and President Trump as well, but also those who handed the U.S. administration a justification to carry out a strike in Iraq.8
In mid-September 2019, al-Sadr visited Iran to commemorate Ashura and met with its top echelon, including Supreme Leader Khamenei and Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force. Some analysts believe al-Sadr was summoned to Tehran.
Al-Sadr visited Iran after Iraq began to be targeted in the Israeli response to Iran’s efforts involving Syria and Lebanon. As attacks in Iraq were attributed to Israel, al-Hashd al-Shabi and other Shiite militias linked to Iran stepped up their activity on Iraqi soil, ignoring the Iraqi governmental and military frameworks. This was a dangerous development that al-Sadr warned about and even more so recently in his public statements and on social networks.
Over the past year, and particularly after the recent strikes attributed to Israel, al-Sadr has criticized Iran’s regional policy and support for the Iraqi Shiite militias and called for those based in Syria to return to Iraq. He asserted that the cost of these wars – which, he implies, Iran is waging using these militias, including on Iraqi territory – is ultimately paid by the Iraqi people with their blood.9
During his visit to Iran, al-Sadr also called to place the Iraqi militias under a single Iraqi military command as well as government supervision. There had been reports that the Iranian Quds Force had been stepping up its activity in Iraq, and that Soleimani and al-Muhandis had been augmenting their collaboration in the framework of al-Hashd al-Shabi. The latter has lately been showing great independence outside the context of the Iraqi security forces, including an ambition to establish its own air force. Other Shiite militias, which also operated against the Islamic State and are loyal to Iran, remain on the ground in Iraq, including in the Kurdish enclaves in the north, and they refuse to be subordinated to the central government.10
As Iraq turns into an arena for Israeli and American retaliatory operations to punish Iranian activity against Israeli, U.S., and Gulf States’ interests, the Iraqi opposition to the Iranian presence in the country could intensify.
This issue is also likely to have far-reaching implications for Iran’s religious status in the Shiite world in light of Iraq’s senior religious authorities’ opposition. Most of the holiest Shiite sites are in Iraq, and they are becoming a center of attraction for the Shiites of the world at the expense of Iran.
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