Untenable: The United States and Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq
Multiple Iraqi Ground Force (IGF) installations in Baghdad and Anbar province that hosted uniformed personnel from the United States (US) came under sustained fire on January 5, 2022 by Katyusha Rocket Systems, an unguided weapons platform first developed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the Second World War. Less than four weeks later, Iraqi Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi’s home in Al-Karmah, Anbar province was hit in a similar fashion by an identical platform following his successful re-election bid to the nation’s highest legislative body. Although both American personnel and Secretary Halbousi escaped serious harm, the attacks serve as a clear reminder that Iraq remains extremely unstable despite serious investment by western nations. In both cases, one organization has been identified as the likely perpetrator: Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH).
A Shiite terror organization established at the height of the 2007 American troop surge into Iraq, KH has transformed itself into one of the largest paramilitary groups within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iranian-backed umbrella formation composed of over 67 factions that played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State (IS). Despite this, the Hezbollah Brigades, as KH is otherwise known, has repeatedly acted against the interests of policymakers in both Washington and Baghdad, often threatening or attempting to assassinate members of its own government. The group has also directly targeted uniformed members of the American military and continues to challenge Washington’s power in both Iraq and wider Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Continued acts of aggression against the United States by Kata’ib Hezbollah increases the chance of miscalculation between Washington, Baghdad, and Tehran, and thus is untenable in the long term. Policymakers and officials in the United States must develop a firm understanding of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Iraqi political system in order to advance American interests in the region and ensure the development of a peaceful and stable Iraq. As such, this report will review the history of KH, discuss its current status within the Iraqi political system, make clear the organization’s capabilities, and provide American policymakers with potential courses of action aimed at limiting or degrading the foreign terror organization’s (FTO) influence in Iraq.
History of Kata’ib Hezbollah
Although Kata’ib Hezbollah first struck Iraqi targets in 2008, it appeared on the threat vectors of western intelligence organizations in late 2007 following a series of successful operations by US and United Kingdom (UK) special mission units that captured Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Quds Force (IRGC-QF) personnel and anti-American ‘special group’ leaders . These ‘special groups’ were militias and guerilla organizations supported by Iran and dedicated to the expulsion of the US-led coalition from Iraq. While 2007 appears to be the first time intelligence officers recognized the establishment of a new special group, KH’s origins can be traced to Kuwait in 1983, where the organization’s founding member had his first experience with terrorism and irregular warfare.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also known as Jamal Ja’far Muhammad Ali Al-Ibrahim, was born in Basra, Iraq on July 1, 1954 to an Iranian mother and Iraqi father. Although much of his early life remains shrouded in mystery, Muhandis reportedly initiated coursework in engineering at the University of Baghdad’s College of Engineering in 1977. He simultaneously joined Hizb al-Da’awa al-Islamiya, otherwise known as the Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite religious party with multiple connections to Iranian revolutionaries. This organization would have a major impact on the future leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, as the doctrine, ideology, rhetoric, and connections Muhandis embraced played a pivotal role in most of his endeavors thereafter. Despite its growing popularity in Iraq, Islamic Dawa Party members were forced to flee the country in 1979 after Saddam Hussien banned all religious parties. This action was motivated by a fear that Iraq would experience a revolution similar to the one undertaken in Iran.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was one of the party members forced to escape to Kuwait during the crackdown. Although the exact amount of time Muhandis remained in Kuwait remains unclear, it is likely he only stayed in the country for a few months before traveling to Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, Iran in order to receive training in irregular warfare and guerrilla tactics from the newly established regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Open source material indicates the training center in Ahvaz specialized in developing Iraqi dissidents into well-trained and well-armed fighters, with the ultimate goal of undermining Hussein.
It was while at the Ahvaz Training Center that Muhandis began working with members of the IRGC, IRGC-QF, Lebanese Hezbollah, and other Iraqi dissidents to plan attacks against nations that supported Iraq with both lethal and non-lethal aid during the Iran-Iraq War. These plans were put into action on December 12, 1983, when trucks laden with plastic explosives targeted the US and French embassies, Kuwait’s main oil refinery, Kuwait International Airport (KWI), the national Electricity Control Center, and dwellings hosting American citizens from the Raytheon Corporation. Although the attacks failed to cause significant damage to Kuwaiti interests or dissuade the international community from supporting Iraq, they were the first time Muhandis participated in a major operation and provided important lessons to the IRGC and future leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Following the Kuwait Bombings, reports indicate that in 1987 Muhandis was appointed as an advisor to the Badr Organization, a militant Shiite formation founded by the IRGC with the objective of increasing Iranian influence and power in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Less than a year later, Muhandis oversaw attacks on Iraqi civilian and military targets. Following the cessation of hostilities in the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Muhandis continued to work with the IRGC and Badr Organization to improve the formation’s effectiveness and capabilities. He would devote the next eleven years of his life to the group, eventually rising to the position of Assistant Commander, or second-in-command, by 2001. The experience he gained during his time with Badr would prove critical in the establishment of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the development of the its strategy, operational form, and tactics.
As the United States formed a casus belli and prepared to invade Iraq in late-2002, Muhandis grew disenchanted with the direction of the Badr Organization. He purportedly resented the idea that had taken hold within Badr that it should present itself as a partner of the United States in order to gain political power following the invasion of Iraq and downfall of Saddam Hussein. Thus, Muhandis formerly exited Badr in 2002, although he remained in Iran for at least one more year .
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was elected as a member of parliament (MP) for the Babil Governorate after running as a member of the Dawa Party in the January 2005 Iraqi elections under his real name: Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi. His time was not extensively spent on legislation, but rather on managing relations between the Iraqi and Iranian governments, as he had cultivated unique connections to Tehran during his time with the Badr Organization. He further assisted in the coordination of strikes against US assets. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, he was, “the main point of contact between the Iraqi fighters and IRGC senior commanders like Qassem Soleimani."
In early 2007, it was revealed to the world that Muhandis played a pivotal role in the 1983 Kuwait Bombings. The Iraqi MP was forced to flee to Iran, as the United States, Kuwait, France, and a host of other state-actors took action aagaint or issued warrants for his arrest. Following the loss of his legitimate standing in Iraq’s parliament, reporting indicates that Muhandis devoted the majority of his time to the development of Kata’ib Hezbollah. While it remains unclear the exact date that KH’s development was initiated, it is clear that the IRGC-QF also supported the group’s creation due to its recognition that existing ‘special group’ formations within Iraq were unreliable and ineffective. In order to rectify these issues with the new organization, Muhandis and the Quds Force limited Kata’ib Hezbollah’s size to below 400, and mandated that each member was individually vetted. Acceptable applicants were limited to individuals with personal connections to another member, and as such, most were former Badr Organization fighters. According to American and Iraqi intelligence estimates, the initial cadre of commanders and fighters were trained at an IRGC-QF installation in Kermanshah, Iran, with these individuals training more Iraqi fighters upon their deployment to Iraq.
Western intelligence personnel suspect Kata’ib Hezbollah’s first major attack against allied forces occurred on February 12, 2007, when a Lockheed Martin C-130J Tactical Transport of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force was struck by an Explosively-Formed Penetrator (EFP) along the side of an airstrip at Contingency Operating Site Hunter in Maysan Province, Iraq. The operation was highly advanced, and caught intelligence and uniformed personnel off guard. The strike was characteristic of several high profile operations carried out by KH, as the group pioneered the development of tactics that utilized improvised explosive devices (IEDs), improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs), and EFPs in truly unique ways. Kata’ib Hezbollah also acted against the United States and United Kingdom through electronic warfare (EW). On December 17, 2009, it was revealed that Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iranian backed organizations utilized open-source software, such as SkyGrabber, to intercept video feeds from American and British unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in order to monitor and evade operations targeting their respective personnel.
Not all of Kata’ib Hezbollah’s attacks were quite as elegant as the aforementioned, as senior leaders within the organization understood that sustained operations against hostile forces were equally as important as high-profile missions. The first minor success western press attributed to Kata’ib Hezbollah occurred on February 19, 2008, when an IRAM struck a US combat outpost (COP) outside of Baghdad at 0542 (GMT+3). The strike killed one American contractor, injured an unknown number of uniformed personnel, and halted nearby operations until at least 0730. Over the next month, KH launched several similar cost-effective operations aimed at reducing American morale and increasing the cost of combat operations around Baghdad. By October of 2008, KH was well known to the United States and United Kingdom, and by the end of the year was being identified by intelligence services as one of the most effective Iranian-backed special groups operating in the vicinity of Baghdad. Under the guidance of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and with the support of the IRGC-QF, Kata’ib Hezbollah would continue to harass American and British forces until the coalition’s withdrawal on December 18, 2011.
Following the withdrawal of US and UK personnel from Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah was left without a mission. Recognizing this could potentially negatively impact the organization’s reputation, Muhandis authorized the deployment of KH personnel to Syria in conjunction with other formations controlled or supported by IRGC-QF. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, KH fighters helped form the core of al-Quwwa al-Haydariya (Haydari Force), a non-state organization composed of individuals fighting for the Syrian regime on behalf of Iran. While operating in Syria, Kata’ib Hezbollah reportedly grew from 400 to nearly 2,500 by 2013, with senior leaders believing operational security would not be challenged by this sudden growth in numbers.
The rise of the Islamic State and its ability to degrade the fighting capacity of the Iraqi Ground Force in the initial months of the conflict presented a significant opening for Kata’ib Hezbollah and other special groups operating within Iraq. Specifically, in 2013, Muhandis and other key figures with connections to the IRGC began lobbying then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to formalize the role of the various militias within the state’s security apparatus and utilize them to combat this new threat. Although the PM initially resisted, this resistance eventually gave way in the face of the danger presented by IS. Maliki gained funding to create the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella formation with multiple militias and special groups operating under its auspice. Muhandis himself became head of the PMF, entrusting Kata’ib Hezbollah’s operations in Iraq to a variety of senior lieutenants based upon their skillsets. While there was undoubtedly a distance between him and KH due to his new role, KH received major support from his office, with the organization growing to over 10,000 personnel in the first months of its time with the PMF. KH also received increased support from the IRGC-QF in the form of non-lethal aid, lethal aid, and advisors.
Once US forces were no longer needed to support combat operations against the Islamic State in late 2017, Kata’ib Hezbollah began to target American uniformed and civilian personnel operating in Iraq and Syria. This campaign against the United States appears to have been coordinated by IRGC-QF, as it ranged from EFP and IED attacks on supply convoys, to sophisticated IRAM and rocket strikes against installations housing US forces. Simultaneously, Muhandis began to play a greater role in Iraqi politics, utilizing his private force to strong-arm key politicians into supporting his policies or providing KH with increased operational capabilities. By 2019, the organization was brutally putting down civil-unrest in Iraq caused by a lack of respect for the civilian population, corruption, and unemployment. KH also conducted operations against foreign targets, including overseeing a drone strike on Saudi Arabia from its outposts in the vicinity of Baghdad. Most concerning with the propensity of KH to act against or threaten Iraqi policymakers and officials which interfered with its strategic objectives or challenged its continued presence in the war-torn country.
Policymakers in Washington determined a major response was needed, and thus elected to strike multiple KH targets in Iraq and Syria, resulting in 25 KH members being killed-in-action and leaving over 50 wounded. Kata’ib Hezbollah retaliated directly and visibly in coordination with the IRGC-QF, nearly overrunning the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on December 31, 2019. Although no US staff were injured or killed, this was a major escalation in the conflict between IRGC-QF, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the United States. Washington responded forcefully, authorizing a strike that resulted in the death of Muhandis and the IRGC-QF’s senior commander, Qasem Soleimani, outside of Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020. This action nearly sparked a war between Iran and the United States, and left the region on the precipice of renewed bloodshed.
While Kata’ib Hezbollah has refrained from major action against the United States following the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani, it continues to harass US forces in Iraq by targeting installations hosting uniformed personnel with IRAMs and striking supply convoys. In the wake of Muhandis’s death, it appears as though the organization is being led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi, a former KH commander with extensive experience in Syria. It has conducted more audacious attacks without claiming direct responsibility, instead operating through a variety of fake militia groups that act similarly to shell companies. The United States has not experienced any significant losses as a result of these strikes, and as such, has mostly deferred to the Iraqi government as to how to handle this organization.
The Iraqi government, however, has proved indecisive and ineffective in regards to Kata’ib Hezbollah’s continued operation. Despite repeated actions against Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, including a major operation within Baghdad’s Green Zone to capture him in April of 2020 and intimidation campaign on June 25, 2020, Iraqi Special Operation Forces have been hamstrung in dealing with KH due to Iranian influence within the Iraqi government. Making matters worse, the PMF is technically embedded within Iraq’s security apparatus, making major action against KH likely to cause massive civil-unrest and instability. Thus, by most measures, it is clear that KH is operating unchecked under the control of IRGC-QF without being challenged significantly at the international or national level.
Capabilities & Disposition of Kata’ib Hezbollah
Due to its extensive irregular warfare experiences in Iraq, regular engagements in Syria, and political maneuvering in Baghdad, Kata’ib Hezbollah has developed significant hard power capabilities and maintains a strong disposition. Unlike a plurality of other PMF formations, KH controls significant territory both inside and outside of Iraq, and is able to project significant combat power when required.
The organization places a special emphasis on the areas of hard and soft power, as it is extremely focused on the strategic and operational realms as opposed to simply the tactical level of warfare. While most of its hard power capabilities are limited to combat power, it has developed significant soft power in the economic, cultural, and political fields.
Within Iraq, KH is one of the most influential actors due to the genius of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as its current disposition and capabilities makes it of special interest to the governments of Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria, and the United States.
The victor of most conflicts can be determined by the land they hold. By that standard, Kata’ib Hezbollah emerged from the Iraq War and fight against the Islamic State in an extremely favorable position, as it has secured extremely favorable territory near Baghdad, in Anbar Province, and on the Iraqi-Syrian border. This enables them to influence the Iraqi government, establish new spheres of influence, and impact international affairs with a degree of autonomy not enjoyed by other militias or Iranian-backed special groups. Thus, in order to understand Kata’ib Hezbollah, one must understand the territory which it occupies. Two areas of extreme importance to the organization include Jurf al-Sakr in Iraq and Abu Kamal in Syria.
Jurf al-Sakr, also known as Jurf al-Nasr, sits 40 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. Retaken by ISOF in 2014, the Sunni town was then handed over to Kata’ib Hezbollah for garrison duty. KH quickly evacuated the town’s residents upon the assumption of their post, and has denied them access to the municipality ever since. The government has proven unable or unwilling to assist the town’s 89,000 residents return home, as IGF and ISOF personnel are reportedly banned from operating in the vicinity of the village. Additionally, reports indicate KH obtained land use rights from an unknown senior government official. Kata’ib Hezbollah has utilized this freedom to develop Jurf al-Sakr into a major installation, boasting conventional weapon, warhead, and missile storage facilities, a drone launch site, at least two unsanctioned prisons or holding facilities, munitions factories, and multiple weapon testing sites and firing ranges. Analysts have identified this facility as the origin point for many of Kata’ib Hezbollah’s attacks against the Iraqi government and US forces in the area around Baghdad.
While Jurf al-Sakr is the center of operations for Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, Abu Kamal is the center of its operations in Syria. Located on the Euphrates river in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate of eastern Syria, Abu Kamal provides KH with a good location to receive training from the IRGC-QF, store munitions, and deploy fighters throughout Syria. It does this largely through the maintenance of Operating Base Imam Ali³⁵. Staffed by IRGC and KH personnel, Imam Ali contains multiple warehouses, underground storage facilities, and may have an underground tunnel running across the border into Iraq. Analysts believe that the facility is a major part of the land bridge used to bring rocket components into Iraq for strikes in the vicinity of Baghdad and Anbar province.
Kata’ib Hezbollah utilizes the aforementioned installations to maintain, train on, and operate a diverse array of platforms and weapon system, including unmanned aerial systems, rockets, and small arms. In recent years, it appears these systems have been utilized significantly more effectively than the IEDs, IRAMs, and EFPs of time past.
In the area of UASs, KH operates several advanced Iranian platforms against targets in Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. One widely publicized drone strike against Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 2020 originated at Jurf al-Sakr’s drone launch facility, and caused damage to one of Aramco’s main facilities. It also appear KH attempted to utilize a Mohajer-6 UAS against US targets an Ayn Al-Asad Airbase in January of 2021.
KH also operates several Iranian designed rocket platforms, including the Kheiber-1, Badr-1, Raad-500, and Katyusha RS. These systems are significantly more advanced than the IRAMs the United States faced in Iraq or Afghanistan, with more range, larger warheads, and improved accuracy. While the exact number of weapon systems KH maintains remains unclear, it appears that the organization may be well stocked with these platforms, and is able to respond to aggression from the Iraqi or American governments relatively quickly.
American Courses of Action
The current US policy in Iraq of strategic ambiguity is untenable in the long-term, given the risk of a miscalculation between Baghdad, Tehran, and Washington as a result of the actions of Kata’ib Hezbollah. Despite this realization by policymakers, recent US actions against the organization do not appear to have benefited American interests in the MENA region. Instead, US statements, operations, and geoeconomic undertakings have only increased regional tension and improved the standing of Kata’ib Hezbollah amongst the Popular Mobilization Forces and within the IRGC-QF. As such, this report will present two potential courses of action which policymakers can build upon to inhibit, limit, and degrade the influence of KH in Iraq and Syria. These paths utilize two extremely different approaches: one argues for increased diplomacy, while the other pursues a policy of military assertiveness.
The United States has pursued policies heavily reliant on military action in the MENA region over the past twenty years. Despite this heavy investment in blood and treasure, Washington has often achieved limited gains, strategic stalemates, or outright defeats. Thus, in order to reduce the risk of such outcomes, policymakers can reasonably pursue a strategy of increased diplomacy with Iraq, Iran, and other international partners. US policymakers can respond to Kata’ib Hezbollah’s aggression through a diplomatic push that utilizes all elements of national power, is long-term in vision, and realistically balances ends and means.
On the other hand, the United States would be completely reasonable to respond to continued KH action against its interests through kinetic operations, especially if sophisticated attack plans are detected or American personnel are killed. However, policymakers in Washington should not repeat the mistakes that occurred during the engagements between Kata’ib Hezbollah and United States in 2019 and 2020, as they drew Iran directly into conflict. Instead, the armed forces must maintain intelligence superiority in the operating environment, coordinate action against militias with ISOF if possible, increase the level of deniability, have clearly defined and achievable objectives, and ensure responses to aggression are proportionate. Furthermore, any military action must occur alongside aggressive diplomatic outreach with all-involved or associated actors in order to avoid a spiral towards conflict.
COA 1: Diplomacy
As previously mentioned, the United States has favored a militaristic policy in the MENA region for over twenty years. However, by relying on a diplomatic approach that utilizes all elements of national power, is long-term in vision, and realistically balances ends and means, it is possible for policymakers in Washington to effectively impede, limit, and degrade Kata’ib Hezbollah’s influence within Iraq and Syria. This diplomatic drive should focus on improving intelligence sharing between the American intelligence community (IC) and Iraq’s security apparatus, training Iraqi Special Operations Forces, and initiating joint Iraqi-American information operations. Furthermore, the United States should attempt to engage Iraq, Iran, and MENA powers in direct negotiations in order to reduce the power and influence of organization’s like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization Forces.
Any diplomatic drive by Washington should attempt to increase the level of intelligence sharing between Baghdad and the IC, as it offers both states significant benefits, namely expanded geographic coverage, improved threat intelligence, diplomatic backchannels, and improved weapons intelligence. While the United States would benefit from increased geographic coverage and diplomatic backchannels, the Iraqi government could undoubtedly utilize improved threat intelligence and weapons intelligence in order to confront Kata’ib Hezbollah and similar organizations during times of internal unrest. The Iraqi government has been caught off guard by attacks within the Green Zone or by rocket and drone strikes against its military installations on multiple occasions. Likewise, the United States has often been caught unprepared by strikes against its forces and interests within the region. In order improve the level of trust between both states, the United States and Iraq should established a joint fusion cell in order to increase the level of awareness of possible strikes. While such threat intelligence sharing may not produce casualties amongst Kata’ib Hezbollah or other PMF elements, the prevention of attacks or casualties would still be considered victories by policymakers in Washington and Baghdad.
Another facet of intelligence cooperation that may be extremely useful is weapon intelligence. During the height of the international military intervention against the Islamic State, the United States sought to increase the quality of weapon intelligence being collected by the government of Iraq. In order to achieve this objective, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) deployed dozens of civilian personnel to the region in an attempt to improve investigative and forensic training within Iraq. Following the defeat of IS and subsequent attacks against US personnel by KH and other PMF members, this program was put on the back-burner and the vast majority of federal law enforcement specialists were withdrawn. A renewed weapons intelligence training and collection program in Iraq utilizing specialists from the FBI and DOJ would significantly improve any US diplomatic campaign against Kata’ib Hezbollah and other PMF formations. Every weapons platform deployed and utilized by the organization can be analyzed by Iraqi personnel for forensics data that can be used in court proceedings, or at the very least, information warfare campaigns against KH. Furthermore, this will enable the Iraqi Government identify KH operations despite the organization’s recent attempts to mask its footprint by creating fake militias to claim responsibility.
The United States would also be wise to maintain or increase its level of support to Iraq’s Special Operations Forces in any diplomatic course of action. This will ensure the Iraqi government has effective capabilities to call upon if a stronger stance is required during diplomatic exchanges. ISOF preformed exceptionally well during the fight against the Islamic State by effectively engaging the enemy, conducting joint-operations with the United States, acting against overreach by the PMF where possible, and limiting civilian casualties. Furthermore, ISOF has conducted operations against Kata’ib Hezbollah on multiple occasions in the years since the fall of the Islamic State, as evidenced by its famous June 25, 2020 raid on a KH combat outpost in Baghdad. Any increase in training support to ISOF could be carried out by American Special Mission Units, such as Army Special Forces, colloquially known as the ‘Green Berets’. This training support would be considered a Foreign Internal Defense (FID) tasking, as American units would participate in training programs to support the Iraqi government from the subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency caused by Kata’ib Hezbollah and PMF.
In order to gain leverage during diplomatic negotiations, the United States would also be required to improve coordination with the Iraqi government in information warfare campaigns. Coordination would most likely need to occur at the highest levels of the US and Iraqi governments, as many Iraqi policymakers are currently split between the United States and Iran. When Kata’ib Hezbollah strikes a US or Iraqi target, policymakers in Iraq and the United States should attempt to control the information environment by releasing as much intelligence as operationally feasible to both the Iraqi and American press, showing that strikes only hurt the stability of Iraq and needlessly risks civilian casualties due to poor collateral damage prevention practices.
In order to support intelligence sharing, training, and information warfare programs, the United States must engage directly and frankly with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in order to determine how best to support the Iraqi state. Similar to how the United States engaged in diplomatic negotiations and discussions with Columbia as policymakers in Bogota combated the Medellin Cartel, so too must the United States with Iraq. This can be done by reinforcing the legitimacy of Kadhimi through the development of working relations with his office on issues other than security, the PMF, or KH. Discussions on economic, climate, and cultural issues between the United States and Iraq must be as public as possible. In private, the US must work with the Prime Minister to reduce Iranian influence within the Iraqi government, as the lack of an effective law enforcement and criminal justice system not subject to the whims of KH or other militias will undercut the long-term effectiveness of actions by ISOF, and in turn, damage the legitimacy of the state.
While the United States is strengthening the Iraqi state, and in doing so, improving its own diplomatic position, policymakers should make clear publicly that they do not seek permanent garrisons or installations within Iraq. Furthermore, the US should announce that it is willing to remove its forces from Iraq if Prime Minister Kadhimi requests an American withdrawal. The inclusion of US force presence on the negotiating table may potentially increase the participation of militia leaders in any disarmament or reconciliation process. The United States, however, must make clear that it is not abandoning its Iraqi partners, and that it is willing to remain in-country and combat Iranian influence if requested by Prime Minister Kadhimi.
While the United States would encourage a dialogue between the Iraqi government and militias, it must refrain from directly engaging non-state actors that have taken major action against the United States, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah. Instead, it must focus on encouraging communication between the Iraqi government and such groups. The US would be much better off engaging directly with Baghdad and Tehran as opposed to individual militias. Furthermore, direct communication with militias may decrease the level of trust between Baghdad and Washington, as the United States is still recovering from its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the blow it recieved to its reputation from side-dealing with the Taliban.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the United States and Iraq would be required to engage in direct talks with Iran in order to reach any sort of diplomatic solution, as the IRGC-QF continues to control the flow of equipment, technology, and training to organizations like Kata’ib Hezbollah. Frankly, Iran has made deep inroads into the Iraqi political, economic, and security fields, and as such, efforts to resolve the situation peacefully will require the support of Tehran. The head of KH, Ahmad al-Hamidawi, is simply a tool of the Iranian state, as are the majority of his equals within Popular Mobilization Forces. Thus, in order to truly disarm or control the group, Iran must be engaged in talks.
COA 2: Military Assertiveness
If diplomacy fails, sophisticated attack plans are detected, or American personnel are killed, the United States must turn to kinetic operations in order to establish its assertiveness. Unlike previous military action against Kata’ib Hezbollah, however, policymakers must not set ambiguous objectives, respond disproportionately, act unilaterally, close the door on diplomacy, or act in a completely forthcoming fashion. Instead, operations must be based on sound intelligence, conducted in coordination with ISOF where possible, have clearly defined and achievable objectives, be deniable by design, and be proportionate.
Just as with the diplomatic course of action, the United States must improve intelligence sharing and collection capabilities within Iraq in order for kinetic action against Kata’ib Hezbollah to be effective and impactful. Not only must the intelligence give the armed forces targets to strike, but also an understanding of how strikes may impact the development of the battlefield and enable them to determine how KH or Iran may respond. Furthermore, intelligence capabilities must be devoted to detecting KH attack plans and enable the United States to engage hostile assets prior to their deployment or utilization.
The United States should also strive to increase its cooperation with ISOF during operations. Although there is a significant gap in the level of risk tolerance in Washington and Baghdad, Prime Minister Kadhimi has shown an ability to stand up to Kata’ib Hezbollah and the PMF when required. While there will certainly be times where the United States is forced to act unilaterally, there may be opportunities to present a joint front against certain targets with Iraq. Specifically, such joint-operations will likely be limited to taskings where there is an immediate threat of hostile activity by KH, as such operations offer a casus belli for the Iraqi government to act without the risk of serious internal unrest.
Policymakers must also understand that pursuing a militaristic course of action will not achieve success at the strategic level, and at best may bring about temporary victory at the operational and tactical levels of warfare. While it is clear that actions must be taken which degrade or inhibit the ability of Kata’ib Hezbollah when US or Iraqi interests are threatened, the United States must act knowing such operations, such as airstrikes or the deployment of special operations units, will only temporarily impact the battlefield and achieve limited tactical objectives. Bombings and raids will not destroy KH or dissuade Iran from supporting its militias.
One of the most important things the United States can do to ensure strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah do not spiral into a larger conflict with Iran is increasing the level of deniability in its operations. In late-2019, the United States quickly claimed responsibility for its strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah and the IRGC-QF in extremely public and hubristic ways, and in doing so, directly taunted policymakers in Tehran. This press campaign ensured Iran would respond and placed American partners in Baghdad in an extremely unfavorable position. By remaining quiet, refusing to acknowledge American operations in the press, and acting in the gray zone, it becomes less likely Iran and Kata’ib Hezbollah will respond as they did in late-2019. When US operations do find their way into the press through strategic leaks by Washington, they will signal to the world that American policymakers have established red-lines, but offer hostile forces a way out in the interest of escalation. This approach was pioneered by Israel in its Mabam Campaign, enabling it to act quietly while signaling to the world it will not allow Iran to threaten its sphere of influence.
The United States must also tailor its kinetic operations to be proportionate. When the United States killed 25 and wounded 55 KH personnel in response to the death of one American contractor, KH and Tehran interpreted this as an escalation, not a message of deterrence. Policymakers must ensure deniable strikes conducted in the gray zone are not excessive.
Most importantly, this course of action should not take place on its own. Instead, it should occur alongside the aggressive diplomatic campaign discussed above. Kinetic operations will not bring about long-term stability or singlehandedly achieve American objectives given the current level of US military commitment to Iraq. Instead, military assertiveness only serves to protect American interests in the short-term, and as such, must only occur when diplomacy fails. This course would only be appropriate when American personnel are killed or threatened by Kata’ib Hezbollah, and no other course of action remains. The United States must make clear the negotiating table is always open, and can be returned to at a moments notice.
Action taken by Kata’ib Hezbollah is a major threat to US interests in the MENA region. Not only does it impact uniformed and civilian personnel in Iraq, but also risks bringing the entire region into conflict. Policymakers and officials in the United States must develop a firm understanding of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Iraqi political system in order to advance American interests in the region and ensure the development of a peaceful and stable Iraq. Furthermore, they must understand the organization’s history, status within the Iraqi political system, and disposition and capabilities in order to determine when diplomacy or military assertiveness is required.