Kataib Hezbollah's strike on US base is a diversion tactic

The Iran-backed militia is attempting to redirect the anger aimed at it and divide Iraqi protesters

An Iraqi protester clad with the national flag takes part in anti-government demonstrations at Tahrir square in the capital Baghdad, on December 30, 2019. / AFP / SABAH ARAR

Last Friday, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, launched rockets on a US military base in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, killing one American contractor, two Iraqi policemen and wounding four others. This was the latest in a series of attacks on bases in Iraq, some of which host US forces. In response, the US armed forces struck back on Sunday night, targeting five Kataib Hezbollah locations in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 Iraqi fighters and wounding more than 50 people.

This worrying escalation is only the latest in a series of assaults by Iranian proxies on bases in Iraq, but it is a reminder of the challenge of these militias. Kataib Hezbollah answer to Tehran, not Baghdad. They work outside the scope of Iraqi law and are rarely held accountable for their actions.

Tehran has promoted the nefarious activities of its proxies in the region – especially in Iraq where it wields great influence. Qassem Solaimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, publicly boasts of his freedom to roam the cities of Iraq, with little concern for its sovereignty.

With its wealth of resources and strategic location, Iraq has been a battleground for proxy wars between regional and global players since 2003, when a US-led invasion succeeded in toppling former dictator Saddam Hussein. But today, the country’s woes are largely attributable to nefarious forces from within, which have stopped an oil-rich nation with bountiful historic monuments and local talent from prospering as it should. Armed Iranian proxies such as Kataib Hezbollah have served to undermine the Iraqi state and advance Iran’s influence in the country to the detriment of Iraqis. It has also jeopardised the lives of Iraqis who work for it, by involving themselves in Syria’s civil war, where their members have fought alongside Bashar Al Assad’s brutal regime. Kataib Hezbollah is only one of many militias belonging to the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella organisation comprised of mostly Tehran-backed armed groups. These militias rose up after 2003 and many of them were involved in sectarian killings from 2005 to 2010. Yet they gained a version of legitimacy in the fight against ISIS only to now act as a powerful proxy for Iran and use their weapons to undermine the Iraqi state. Attempts to integrate the various PMF factions into the Iraqi armed forces and abide by the law have so far proved fruitless. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has pushed the deadline for their full integration several times, and did not succeed in reigning in their influence on Iraqi streets.

But the people of Iraq have had enough of militias and the rule of sectarian politicians. Since October 1, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Baghdad and the country’s Shia-majority south to call for an end to foreign meddling, and for the fall of a corrupt political elite that has robbed them of the right to live a decent life.

Kataib Hezbollah's latest provocation against the US is an attempt to undermine the uprising and ease the political anger directed at them

Unarmed demonstrators have been met with bullets, leaving nearly 500 people dead at the hands of Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias. More than 24,000 Iraqis have been injured since the onset of the protests and thousands more are left with permanent disabilities.

Kataib Hezbollah’s latest provocation against the US is an attempt to undermine the uprising and ease the political anger directed at them. They hope to force Iraqis to pick a side and back one foreign country over another. But Iraqis have spoken and they have rejected this fatalistic choice between Tehran and Washington. Demonstrators want their leaders to put Iraq first, chanting slogans such as “we want a country” and “Iran out, freedom for Iraq”. They have chosen loyalty to Iraq above all else, and refused to fall prey to sectarian divisions.