Monday, December 22, 2014

Instrument Of Iran’s Power In Iraq And Syria Kataib Hezbollah

As the insurgency grew at the beginning of 2014, many of Iraq’s militias began mobilizing to face the threat. One of those was Kataib Hezbollah (KH), the Hezbollah Brigades. In 2007 the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC – QF) formed the group as a small elite unit to attack U.S. forces in Iraq. Its leader was Abu Mahdi Muhandis, a former member of Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, who now acts as a representative of Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani in Iraq. In 2012 KH was deployed to Syria by Tehran to support the government of Bashar al-Assad, and in 2014 it refocused upon Iraq to fight insurgents there. From the day it was formed until today Kataib Hezbollah has acted as a means for Iran to project its influence into Syria and Iraq.


Kataib Hezbollah has its origins with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC – QF). In 2007 IRGC-QF created Kataib Hezbollah as a small elite force of around 400 fighters to carry out operations against the United States and Coalition Forces in Iraq. It received arms and equipment from Tehran as well as training by Lebanese Hezbollah. Starting in March 2007 it began attacking American forces. In July 2009 the U.S. Treasury Department put the organization on its terrorist list and sanctioned it. From 2010-11 it stepped up its attacks as the Americans were preparing to withdraw. In July 2010 for example, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General Ray Odierno claimed that KH elements were in Iran for training to conduct new operations against the U.S, and Iranian advisers were also said to be in Iraq as well to assist it. The next year on June 6, 2011 KH claimed responsibility for an attack upon a base in Baghdad that killed five U.S. soldiers, and also carried out a rocket attack upon the Green Zone three days later. At the end of the month it killed three more Americans in a rocket barrage on their base in Wasit province near the Iranian border. KH was created to carry out Iranian policy in Iraq. Tehran was threatened by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. There were hostile forces right on its border and the Americans were trying to create a pro-Western government in Baghdad. Iran was intent on undermining these efforts and funded various militias to drive the U.S. out. When American announced that it would withdraw by the end of 2011 Tehran had its proxies like KH pick up its operation so that Iran could claim credit for the departure of the U.S.

Kataib Hezbollah next expanded its operations to Syria when Iran’s ally President Bashar al-Assad was threatened. In 2012 Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani called on Kataib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias aligned with Tehran to send fighters to Syria to help the Assad government. KH helped form the Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade along with Syrian and Lebanese members under the supervision of the IRGC-QF. In early 2013 it formed another militia Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada along with the Badr Organization to fight in Syria. By April 2013 it made its first public announcements of its involvement in Syria when it posted pictures of some its men that died there. To support and maintain this effort KH began recruiting in Iraq, with some of its new fighters being sent to Iran or Lebanon for training. KH justified its involvement in Syria by saying that it was defending the Sayid Zainab shrine in the Damascus suburbs from Sunni Islamists and the Free Syrian Army. That way it could say that it was performing a religious duty and distract from its support of the Assad government and working for Tehran. The shrine was also located in a strategic neighborhood that blocked rebels from surrounding the Syrian capital and allowed regime forces access to the Damascus International Airport. When the protests against the Assad government began, Tehran offered support to break them up. It didn’t believe that the Syrian army was loyal or up to the task however so it brought in its Iraqi allies such as Kataib Hezbollah. Now these have become the main forces defending the government against the rebels. In turn that made Assad dependent upon Iran and its Iraqi proxies. This strategy would be replayed in Iraq in 2014.

KH fighters helped break the siege of Amerli, Salahaddin in Aug 2014 (BBC)

When the Iraqi insurgency was revived this year KH began bringing back its men from Syria to fight at home. According to Reuters, in April Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a meeting where he told fellow politicians that militias were being deployed to the Baghdad belts because he was disappointed with the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). These irregular forces were put under Maliki’s office of commander and chief. KH was already withdrawing its men from Syria to fight in Iraq by then, and began a new recruiting drive in April as well. These were put into Popular Defense Companies. The next month KH posted video of it helping the ISF. In turn, the army was providing uniforms, weapons and support to the group. Its role was expanded after the fall of Mosul in June. In August it helped break the siege of Amerli in Salahaddin, and was said to have Quds Force advisers with it. Like in Syria, its operations were coordinated with General Suleimani. In December for instance, an Iraqi parliamentarian told the Observer, Suleimani “has the Shia militias, Asai’b ahl al-Haq, Katai’b Hezbollah and the Badr Brigades following his instructions to the letter.” Like in Syria, the Iranian government was not sure of the capabilities of the ISF when open fighting began in Anbar in January. It therefore called on its militia allies once more to protect the government. Today those groups are half or more of the government’s forces, and they have been informally integrated within units of the ISF. This has made Baghdad just like Damascus largely dependent upon Iranian and militia support to fight the insurgents.

IRGC - QF commander Gen Suleimani (center looking into camera), Badr leader Hadi Ameri (in between two blocked out faced men) and Muhandis (far right with glasses) in meeting discussing military operations in Iraq 2014 (Twitter)

KH’s leader Abu Mahdi Muhandis, also known as “The Engineer,” is a facilitator for Iran’s policies in Iraq. Muhandis, real name Jamal Jaafar Mohammed Ibrahimi, joined the Dawa Party in Iraq in the early 1970s. He left for Kuwait later in that decade where he found a job as an engineer in Kuwait City. In 1983 he helped with the bombings of the U.S. and French embassies there and then made an attempt to assassinate the emir of Kuwait in 1985. These were both planned by the Quds Force to deter Kuwait, France and the Americans from supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. Muhandis ended up moving to Iran afterward where he joined the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). He went on to fight on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War and eventually became the deputy commander of ISCI’s militia the Badr Brigade. Badr was then an official arm of the IRGC making Muhandis an Iranian officer. In 2002, Muhandis quit ISCI when it decided to work with the Americans in the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2005, Muhandis won a seat in the Iraqi parliament as part of the Iraqi United Alliance, but when the U.S. found out who he was it put out an arrest warrant for him and he fled back to Iran. That didn’t stop him from unsuccessfully running again in 2010 with the Iraqi National Alliance. Between then he funneled weapons to Iranian backed militias, while providing training for their fighters. When the Americans finally withdrew at the end of 2011, Muhandis returned to Iraq where he worked as General Suleimani’s unofficial representative to Baghdad. When in Iraq he lived in a house in the Green Zone under the protection of Premier Maliki. The premier not only gave him political cover saying that the charges against him for the bombings and assassination attempt in Kuwait in the 1980s were never proven, but even included him in an official delegation to Kurdistan in February 2013. Since 2014 he has facilitated the flow of Iranian funds, logistics and planning to its militia allies in Iraq. Muhandis’ long alliance with the Iranians explains why he was put in charge of Kataib Hezbollah when it was formed in 2007. He’d been working on conjunction with the IRGC since the 1980s and had a commission in the organization. His long time in the Iraqi opposition also gave him standing and ties with many Shiite politicians that came to power after 2003 making him an ideal middle man between them and Tehran. He has maintained this role into the present time.

Kataib Hezbollah has worked as one of Iran’s main proxies in Iraq and Syria since its creation in 2007. It carried out attacks for Tehran against the Americans, and then moved to defend Iran’s ally President Assad in Syria. Today it is one of the main forces defending Baghdad and its leader Muhandis is helping to supply other pro-Iranian militias as well. All along it has served Iran’s interests in the region opposing its enemies and helping its friends. Tehran has regularly deployed these types of allies to carry out its policies in the Middle East and beyond.


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