On May 19 a Katyusha rocket fired from near Baghdad’s Technological University landed near the monument to the Unknown Soldier not far from the US Embassy in the city’s Green Zone. The rocket fire comes amid tensions between Washington and Tehran. It is important to examine the differing reactions among Iraq’s Shi’ite paramilitary militia groups to gauge how they view the tensions with the US and to analyze if they will escalate the situation.
On May 5 National Security Advisor John Bolton said “any attack on the United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The US is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the IRGC or regular Iranian forces.” On May 13 Brian Hook, Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Special Representative for Iran, reiterated US policy: “Tehran will be held accountable for the attacks of its proxies. They cannot organize, train, and equip their proxies and then expect anyone to believe that they had no role. And so we will not make a distinction between the Iranian Government and its proxies.”
In the wake of the rocket attack members of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) have begun to respond. The PMU is a group of several large mostly Shi’ite militias that have up to 100,000 men in their ranks. They played a key role in the war on ISIS. Some of the militias are relatively new in their foundation, while others have roots going back to the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran where their commanders served alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In March 2018 the PMU were formally inducted into the Iraqi Security Forces. As official members of the security forces, and with members in parliament, the paramilitary militias no longer release statements only in a vacuum. Their actions and views have links directly to the leadership in Baghdad and Tehran.
Kata’ib Hezbollah ( كتائب حزب الله )
On May 20, 2019 Kata’ib Hezbollah said that “the shelling of the Green Zone by a Katyusha rocket does not serve the public interest” or is not justified.
The group has a long history of opposition to the US presence in Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2009 by the US as well as its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. “The U.S. Department of the Treasury targeted Iran-based individual Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iraq-based Shia extremist group Kata’ib Hizballah for threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the Government of Iraq,” the US Treasury wrote at the time.
The group was angered by an airstrike in June of 2018 that it initially blamed on the US. The group has upped its rhetoric in the last two years against the US presence. In July 2018 anti-Iran protesters burned a Kata’ib Hezbollah office in southern Iraq. In September katyusha rockets were fired at the US consulate in Basra, although Kata’ib Hezbollah was not implicated.
Initial reports on May 20 indicated that the group called the rocket attack inappropriate, the subsequent statement, published by Aletejah TV indicated they felt it could harm the public interest. This statement was reiterated on the night of May 19, with claims the attack was not justified and its “timing” inappropriate, and similar language used on the morning of May 20, when it said it did not serve the public interest. Aletejah TV was the first to show images of the Katyusha attack and the TV station is linked to Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Around noon the group came out with more statements about the serious situation, claiming the attack showed that the attacked revealed “parties working to put pressure on the resistance,” meaning they believed it was a conspiracy or “false flag” that would be used against them.
Badr Organization (منظمة بدر)
Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri said on May 20 that Iran and the US do not want war. He accused “only the Zionists of pushing for war.” He argued that a national and religious responsibility was incumbent on everyone to remove the looming conflict from Iraq. He hinted at the alarming proximity of war. He also said that only the “ignorant” supported conflict. He made two statements on May 20. His second statement said he was concerned about a war that would harm everyone.
Amiri is the leader of the Fatah (Fateh) Alliance which contested the 2018 elections and received 48 seats in parliament. The alliance has numerous members of the PMU. Badr is therefore a leader of a large political party and also a large and historic armed group. It was formed by Hadi al-Amiri in 1983 as the armed section of the the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI later ISCI), splitting from it become its own unit. Amiri was considered a potential Prime Minister candidate last year. Badr has also controlled the Interior Ministry in Iraq, placing its loyalists in the Federal Police and elsewhere.
After the US designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization in April, Badr condemned the US. “This is laughable coming from the No. 1 sponsor of terrorism, America,” said a spokesman for the Badr Organization. Amiri’s Fatah also condemned it “We reject this action from America and say we have honor to be in the Islamic resistance that fought and beat terrorism.”
Asaib Ahl al-Haq (عصائب أهل الحق)
Qais Khazali and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have been frequent critics of the US presence and threatened the US in the past. Just before the rocket strike the group had indicated that US apologies for a recent friendly-fire incident in which Iraqi forces were targeted was not sufficient.
Like Badr and Kata’ib Hezbollah, AAH also sought to prevent tensions from growing after the rocket attack. Khazali, leader of AAH, argued that the war is not in the interests of the US or Iran. He also claimed that only Israel was interested in conflict. “We urge caution against confusion that could lead to pretexts and conflict that would damage Iraq’s political, economic and security situation.”
US Senator Marco Rubio has directly warned AAh and Kata’ib Hezbollah against any provocations, arguing that an attack by either one would be seen as a direct attack by Iran.
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba ( حركة حزب الله النجباء )
Designated a terrorist group in February 2019, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba has consistently threatened the US in Iraq. In the wake of the rocket fire Tasnim news reported that it said it would respond to any attack by the US and that it would continue to struggle against the US “until the end of their occupation.”
The group also said that “the Iraqi government must not forget that in the most difficult period, when most of our countries, and most of all, the United States left us alone in fighting ISIS, Iran was helping us.”
Amid the tensions with the US on May 7 Akram Abbas al-Kaabi of Harakat Hezbollah said that “we will not take off the clothes of war until we have cut off the head of the snake America, the factory and source of terrorism.”
Its May 20 statements make it appear it thinks the rocket attack was planned by the US as an excuse to strike at groups like it or Iran.