Kataib Hezbollah’s Escalating Feud with the Iraqi Security Forces
KH is increasingly picking territorial fights with the Iraqi security forces.
Since the Coordination Framework appointed Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as their “general manager” of the Iraqi government, the Kataib Hezbollah (KH) terrorist movement and its fighters inside the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have become more assertive in its clashes with the Iraqi security forces.
The March 14 clash between KH and CTS in Speicher
The initial incident of note took place in Camp Speicher, a strategic outpost on the Baghdad-Mosul road near Tikrit, Salah al-Din, and a powerful sectarian totem since the June 12, 2014 execution by the Islamic State of up to 1,700 Iraqi air force cadets who were based at the camp. On March 14, 2023, a group of KH fighters led by Abu Jaffar al-Daraji, a KH commander and the head of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) security directorate in Salah al-Din, engaged in a firefight with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) in Speicher.
Relations between the CTS and KH have never been comfortable, especially in Speicher and other remote bases where the U.S.-established CTS maintains outposts for its regional commando battalions engaged in anti-Islamic State operations. The Speicher clash occurred a day after a major PMF parade at the camp that memorialized Tikrit’s liberation in 2014, which is a controversial issue between different parts of the Iraqi security forces as the PMF withdrew from the operation in protest against CTS’ use of U.S. airpower in the operation. Initial reports suggested KH had tried to access the CTS’ pay delivery, whereupon the CTS shot and killed two KH members. Then KH burned a number of CTS vehicles and shot and injured two CTS soldiers.
The May 15 showdown in Albu Aitha
Ever since the Sudani government was installed by the Coordination Framework, Iran-backed militias such as KH have been a more visible presence on Baghdad’s streets, with KH running checkpoints in the Palestine Street area that were not in place during the tenure of the Kadhimi government in 2020-2022. (Badr’s Abu Turab al-Tamimi also recently took over the Izdihar palace complex in west Baghdad on behalf of the PMF and their Muhandis General Company from Iraqi Army forces and Federal Police).
On May 15, 2023, another shooting match began between KH members of the PMF and rival Iraqi Security Forces, this time in Baghdad’s Albu Aitha suburb. This time two Federal Police members were shot and wounded by KH. The Federal Police used heavy machine-guns to defend themselves. The incident (including the wounding of a Federal Police trooper) was captured on video (Figure 1) and circulated on the internet, quickly, bringing social outrage. The Iraqi Security Media Cell (SMC) put out a cautious statement on May 16, 2023 claiming that the Federal Police accompanied the Baghdad municipality to remove illegal buildings, but they held back from criticizing any PMF or Iran-backed militia factions.
Muqawama platforms initially reported that a person named Omar al-Issawi and his group clashed with the security forces. These platforms initially tried to distance themselves from the incident by giving a Sunni name as the perpetrator. Following the incident, a few KH-affiliated platforms disseminated a statement in the name of local landowners (“the owners of Dora lands”) thanking “the prime minister and the minister of interior for their direct intervention in pulling out a group that belonged to the Federal Police which came without an official order from Federal Police Command or the [Baghdad] Operations Command. We demand a transparent investigation to reveal the details of the incident especially since we have all the documents that prove that this land belongs to us and that we won’t allow to turn Dora area into another Anbar controlled by Halbousi and his corrupt followers. Owners of Dora Lands.’’ (Figure 2)
The so-called Dora Lands are the former properties of Saddam’s family, mostly located under the bridge linking Dora district and east Baghdad. These farms (which are in the Albu Aitha outskirt of Dora) were seized by Iraqi Shia militias after 2003 and parcels of the valuable land was illegally sold off to private citizens in the area, who began to build illegal structures on the land. Albu Aitha is also notorious as the site of numerous assassination cells and prisons run by Iran-backed militias like KH and Saraya al-Ashura (PMF brigade 8), including the killers of Hisham al-Hashimi on July 6, 2020. Albu Aitha was also a base for KH rocket cells. KH was famously raided by the CTS in Albu Aitha on June 26, 2020 after evidence linked the site to a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy, leading to the CTS arrest of the rocket cell leader and 12 other KH fighters.
Under the Coordination Framework’s “muqawama government” the Iraqi militias are becoming more territorial and they have growing confidence that they can take on the CTS, army and Federal Police with few consequences. KH is a particularly interesting case that is worth watching: the group has been less prominent in anti-U.S. attacks since the last overt strike by the movement in August 2022 against the U.S. base in Al-Tanf, Syria. Within Iraq, KH is busy consolidating control over valuable territory and working as a key force within the expanding PMF and the new Muhandis General Company. The issue of to what extent some or all of the factions of KH are “domesticating” in the same manner as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (i.e., primarily focused on domestic power grabs and economic empire-building) is an open question, and a worthy one.
Source » washingtoninstitute