Iran-backed militias in Iraq step up warnings of attacks on US troops

Tensions rising as several paramilitary groups aim to remove American forces from Iraq

Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces paramilitaries chant slogans ahead of the funeral of members of the group killed in a US strike in Baghdad in January. AFP
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Iran-backed militias in Iraq continued to issue threats to attack the US on Sunday, repeating their insistence that American forces should leave Iraq.

Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada was the latest faction to issue the warning, speaking to Iraq’s Shafaq news agency.

“The presence of American forces in Iraq – which are occupying forces – is categorically rejected,” the group’s spokesman told the news outlet. He said Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada was “working to remove those forces through factional operations.”

The militia joined a coalition of mostly Iran-backed Iraqi groups formed to fight ISIS in 2014, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which is part of the official Iraqi Security Forces.

Attacks on US forces in Iraq are currently rare, after a wave of nearly 200 attacks following the Israel-Gaza war.

The current pause is due to Iraqi government talks with the US to agree on a timeline for withdrawing forces. If the talks fail to reach an agreement, further attacks are widely expected following several warnings by the militias.

Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada – one of the oldest Iran-backed factions in Iraq, formed in the early 1990s as a militia opposed to the Saddam Hussein regime – has joined a parallel PMF organisation.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq formed after the eruption of the Israel-Gaza war, acting as an umbrella organisation for claiming attacks in support of Hamas.

It includes Kataib Hezbollah, among the most violent and well-armed of Iran’s proxies in Iraq, which fought the US occupation.

The US killed the group’s leader, Jamal Jaafar Al Ibrahim, who went by the pseudonym Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, in a drone strike near Baghdad airport in 2020, alongside senior Iranian general Qassem Suleimani.

Since that strike, which followed a period of rising clashes between the PMF and coalition forces, Iran-backed groups have pressed the Iraqi government to expel US forces, with little success.

Attacks on Israel

Problems encountered include objections from Sunni and Kurdish MPs, and concurrent challenges faced by Iraq, including sharp political factionalism that has paralysed decision making for extended periods.

Islamic Resistance in Iraq and its affiliates have been in the spotlight since late January when they claimed a drone attack on a US outpost in Jordan, killing three soldiers.

The US retaliated with air strikes, hitting militia outposts across the country and killing scores of the fighters. The Jordan attack, which struck the Tower 22 outpost, was an unprecedented escalation by the groups on US forces stationed outside Iraq.

That month, the spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah boasted of possessing an arsenal of long-range missiles and drones, including cruise missiles, which were later used in strikes against Israel.

The threat comes amid long-term, high-level talks between Baghdad and Washington “for a gradual reduction leading to the end of the [coalition’s] mission”, originally to train Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS, starting in late 2014.

The mission, which involves soldiers from a number of Nato countries, largely depends on the US for the backbone of troops, with about 2,500 still in Iraq.

ISIS can barely muster more than five to 10 attacks across Iraq per month, mostly using light weapons in remote areas, in stark contrast to its peak, when it controlled one third of Iraq and Syria, and carried out hundreds of attacks a week.

But the coalition training mission has been challenged by PMF attacks on US forces, which have surged since the Israel-Gaza war started on October 7.

Hamas is an ally of the PMF and receives arms and funding from Iran. Hundreds of drone and rocket attacks on US forces have disrupted the already slimmed-down counter-ISIS mission.

The militia warning comes amid growing concerns that the Israel-Gaza war will spread, beyond additional fronts in Lebanon and Syria, where almost daily exchanges of fire and air strikes are taking place.

Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba, another militia within the Islamic Resistance, said it would retaliate if Israeli jets strike its positions in Iraq. Israel has conducted hundreds of air strikes on Iran-linked weapons and arms smuggling in Syria since 2013.

The conflict escalated sharply on April 1 when Israeli jets bombed the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus, killing two senior Iranian generals and five other officers. Iran retaliated on April 13, firing hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones towards Israel, but causing little damage.

Updated: June 09, 2024, 12:54 PM