Iran-Backed Shi'ite Militias In Iraq: We Will Declare War Against U.S. Forces If They Don't Leave By End Of 2021

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December 30, 2021

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As the end of the year 2021 approaches, the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias in Iraq have escalated their threats against the U.S. forces deployed there, promising "war" if these forces do not withdraw from the country by midnight on December 31, 2021. Their threats clarify their rejection of the understandings reached between U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in June 2021, according to which the U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, but will continue "to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS."[1]

The heads of the militias and their supporters have issued many threats against the U.S. forces, some general and some concrete, for instance, threatening to target U.S. military convoys or to attack bases housing U.S. troops with rockets or armed drones.[2] Some militias consider the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad a legitimate target, and regard it as a military base rather than a diplomatic mission.


A poster which portrays Al-Nujaba movement’s rockets moving toward the U.S. embassy in Baghdad with the caption: "War of Attrition” (Telegram, December 6, 2021)

In November-December 2021, there were reports of an increase in attacks on the American forces, most of which were IED attacks on U.S. logistics support convoys in southern Iraq. This escalation in attacks is most likely being directed by Iran, or is at least occurring with its knowledge and approval. Iran seeks to expel the U.S. forces in order to consolidate its control over the region. It is also likely that Iran is seeking to send a message to the international community and to the U.S. in particular, against the backdrop of the nuclear talks in Vienna, by igniting the Iraqi arena by means of its proxies.

Furthermore, the organizations themselves are motivated to escalate the threats and the struggle against the American forces in Iraq. First, they hope to strengthen their relevance – both within and beyond Iraq – by proving that they have not abandoned their main goal, which is to expel the American forces. The withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, and the Taliban's rise to power undoubtedly fired up the ambitions of militias in Iraq to similarly banish the Americans from Iraq.

Another possible reason for the escalation is that the militias also want to show that they have not forgotten their threats, which so far have remained empty, to avenge the deaths of of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (Popular Mobilization Units, PMU), who were killed in an American strike on January 3, 2020. The approaching anniversary and deadline increase their motivation to attack the American forces.

From an Iraqi domestic political perspective, a heightening of the threats and attacks against the U.S. forces is also a signal to Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi and a further challenge to his government, in an effort to undermine it. Moreover, by means of these threats the militias are conveying the message that they reject any threat to their status or their right to bear arms. The militias are concerned that following the decline in influence of the political parties that represent them in government as expressed in the results – which they contested – of the parliamentary elections held on October 10, 2021, their opponents may now be able to legislate laws which will weaken their status and power, such as a law which would stipulate that the militias be integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces.

In response to Iran's concern – and that of the militias it supports which constitute its active proxy in Iraq – about an American response, ever since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Iran and these militias have been directing a campaign of secondary proxies to execute its operations. These groups, which are constantly springing up, are those which, over the past two years, have claimed responsibility for all the attacks carried out against the U.S. forces across Iraq. It is unclear whether these groups are actually perpetrating the attacks or are only fronts for the claims of responsibility. Unsurprisingly, the identities of their commanders are not known. Most of the groups are active on Telegram and publish their threats and claims of responsibility on their channels.

Recently, the Al-Nujaba movement implied its sponsorship of these groups, when on December 9, 2021, its leader, Akram Al-Ka'abi, held a meeting with participants who were identified as the commanders of the groups. During the meeting, which was broadcast on television, Al-Ka'abi appeared against a backdrop of the flags of several of the groups and delivered a speech in which he praises them for their operations against the American forces. His deputy, Nasser Al-Shammari, later explained that the groups are comprised of "members of the resistance factions and were beyond all the political demands and pressures. We have totally supported them from the minute they were established."[3]

About three days before the deadline set by the militias for the withdrawal of the American forces, a group called the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee (IRCC), which comprises most of the significant militias, such as Hizbullah Brigades, 'Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and the Al-Nujaba movement, announced that these militias intended to renew their operations against the U.S. forces. It is likely that this statement implies that in the future the attacks will be on a larger scale.

This report reviews the threats against the U.S. forces in Iraq and the attacks that have been perpetrated against them during November-December 2021.

List of Attacks Carried Out Against U.S. Forces in Iraq in November-December 2021

During the latter months of 2021, there was an increase in attacks against the American forces in Iraq, following the period which led up to the October parliamentary elections, when there was a significant decrease in the number of attacks. Most of the attacks took place in southern Iraq and all involved the use of IEDs which were detonated on what were described in the claims of responsibility as "logistics support convoys of the American forces." The responsibility for these attacks was claimed by groups which were established during the past two years, headed by a group which calls itself Ashab Al-Kahf (People of the Cave).

On December 27, the Ulu Al-'Azm ("The Determined Ones") militia claimed responsibility for "a qualitative double operation" targeting a logistics support convoy in the Al-Diwaniyah area.

On December 26, 2021, six operations were carried out against U.S. forces' convoys: The Qassem Al-Jabbareen Brigade attacked on the road between Al-Hillah and Al-Diwaniyah; two operations were carried out in the Baghdad area, one of them by Liwa Tha'r Al-Muhandis (The Brigade for Avenging Al-Muhandis) and the other by the Abu Al-Fadl Al-'Abbas Brigades; another attack occurred in Al-Anbar Governorate, perpetrated by Katibat Al-Sabiqoun, and two were carried out by Ashab Al-Kahf, in Al-Hillah and in Al-Diwaniyah.[4]


The above infographic depicts the operations of "The Land Logistics Blockade" against the American forces, carried out on December 26. (Source: Telegram, December 26, 2021)

On December 22, Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy in Al-Muthannah Governorate,[5] and on December 23, Liwa Tha'r Al-Muhandis, claimed responsibility for an attack on the U.S. convoy in Salah Al-Din Governorate.[6]

On December 21, three attacks were reportedly perpetrated: the Fateh Khaybar Brigade claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy on the road between Basrah and Al-Diwaniyah, Liwaa Khaybar (Khaybar Brigade) claimed responsibility for an attack on Al-Diwaniyah, and Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for an attack in the Babil area.[7]

On December 19, Katibat Al-Sabiqoun claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy in Al-Anbar Governorate.[8]

On December 16, Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for two IED attacks on U.S. convoys in Babil and Al-Qadisiyah Governorates.[9]

Liwaa Khaybar claimed responsibility for an IED attack perpetrated on December 16, against a convoy in Al-Diwaniyah.[10]

On December 14, Qassem Al-Jabbareen claimed responsibility for an IED "qualitative operation" against a convoy traveling between Al-Samawah and Al-Diwaniyah.[11] On December 14, Katibat Al-Sabiqoun, claimed responsibility for an IED attack on a convoy in the area near the city of Al-Diwaniyah.[12]

On December 12, Katibat Al-Sabiqoun announced that it had carried out a "qualitative operation" against American forces' convoys traversing the international highway nearby Al-Diwaniyah.[13]

On the same day, the Qassem Al-Jabbareen Company claimed responsibility for an attack against a U.S. convoy in Al-Diwaniyah, and Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for two attacks against American convoys, one in the Babil Governorate and the second in the Al-Qadisiyah Governorate.[14]

On December 9, Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.S. convoy in Al-Qadisiyah.[15]

On November 30, the Jihad Brothers' Team Telegram channel claimed that a U.S. convoy was attacked in Babil Governorate.[16]

On November 28, Azad News, a pro-Iran Telegram channel, reported an attack on a U.S. convoy in Al-Diwaniyah.[17] And on the same day, Liwa Thar Al-Muhandis claimed responsibility for an attack on an American convoy near the city of Samawah in Al-Muthanna Governorate.[18]

On November 26-28, Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for several attacks against convoys in Al-Qadisiyah Governorate, Babil Governorate and Dhi Qar Governorate.

On November 25, the Saraya Awliya Al-Dam (Companies of the Guardians of the Blood) group claimed responsibility for an attack on an American convoy in the area near Basrah.

On November 22, the Zulfiqar Forces claimed responsibility for targeting a U.S. convoy in Baghdad.

On November 21, Ashab Al-Kahf claimed responsibility for two attacks on convoys in the Al-Qadisiyah Governorate and in Babil.[19]

On November 19, the group carried out an attack against a convoy in Al-Nasiryiah, southern Iraq.[20]

Iran Accelerates Efforts to Expel U.S. Forces

The attacks were escalated on orders from Iran, or at least with its knowledge, for Iran arms, supports and directs these militias. Iran routinely fights its enemies by means of proxies, such as local Shi'ite militias that follow its dictates, because this approach saves it having to act on its own and pay the price. In Iraq, as in Lebanon and Yemen, Iran employs the militias which are loyal to it in several ways. In the political arena, it installs figures identified with these militias in key positions and ensures that laws are passed which serve its interests, while on the military level it directs the militias to stage attacks, usually against the U.S. forces. At the same time, it acts to control the intensity of the attacks, striving to avoid causing fatalities and to limit the damage to equipment and to the areas in which its enemies operate.

On the rhetorical level, Iran speaks in two voices. On the one hand, Iranian officials reiterate that their country does not intervene in Iraq's affairs and that the decision as to whether to expel the U.S. forces is up to the Iraqi people and parliament. On the other hand they declare that Iran strives to expel the U.S. forces from the region, and threaten that, if they do not withdraw of their own accord, they will be forced to do so and will suffer heavy losses. It should be noted that spokespersons for the Iranian regime repeatedly stress that the Iranian response to the U.S. assassination of former IRGC Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 will be the expulsion of the U.S. forces from Iraq. For example, on December 2, 2021, the present commander of the Qods Force, Esmail Qaani, said: "We said to the Americans, we repeated the message, and we are [now] saying once again: You still have time to leave our region on your own… If you do not leave, you will be driven out of this region, in worse shape than [when you left] Afghanistan…"[21]

IRGC Aerospace Force Commander General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh stated on November 15, 2021, that since Soleimani's assassination Iran has accelerated its efforts to expel the U.S. forces. He said: "We came to the conclusion that the war was not yielding results to our advantage and that we must act to produce better results for us and for the region. The regime officials therefore raised the issue of expelling the Americans from the region… We have been working to achieve this for 20 years, and we accelerated our efforts after [the assassination of] Hajj Qasem [Soleimani]…"[22]

Threats from Shi'ite Militias

The messages of the Iranian regime are echoed by the groups and organizations loyal to it in Iraq. In fact, the Iran-backed militias in the country have been threatening the U.S. forces and demanding their withdrawal since their arrival in Iraq in 2003. They escalate these threats from time to time, especially following U.S. attacks on their bases or ahead of visits by the Iraqi prime minister to Washington.[23]

Militia Commanders: If the Americans Do Not Leave Iraq We Will Declare Open War on Them

As stated, in recent months the Iran-backed militias and groups have focused their threats on December 31, 2021, demanding that all U.S. forces, both fighters and advisors, leave the country by that date. They declare that, after this date, they will not consider themselves bound by any commitment and will intensify the military action against the Americans to the extent of declaring a "war," an "open conflict" or a "war of attrition" against them.

In November 2021, Abbas Al-'Ardawi, a member of the Harakat Huqouq movement, affiliated with the Hizbullah Brigades, addressed the U.S. soldiers on Twitter and said he hopes they will welcome the New Year with their families. He urges them not to rely on their leaders, and warns that the Islamic resistance will declare war on the U.S. forces in Iraq at midnight on December 31, 2021. Abu Ala' Al-Wala'i, commander of the Sayyid Al-Shuhada' Brigades, tweeted that "the time for the grand confrontation is approaching," calling on the Iraqi people to join his faction and be ready for the final battle against the U.S. occupation, which will commence at midnight on December 31. 'Ali Al-Asadi, chairman of the political bureau of the Al-Nujaba movement, tweeted,"It appears that the American forces do not intend to leave Iraq. In that case we advise them to prepare graves for the bodies of their soldiers."[24]

On November 19, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee (IRCC), an umbrella group of Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militias, issued a statement pledging to take up arms against any U.S. forces remaining in the country after the end of 2021.[25] Two weeks later, Sa'd Al-Sa'di, an official in 'Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, warned that, if the U.S. forces do not withdraw from Iraq by December 31, the IRCC would launch an "open war" to expel them.[26]

On December 11, Mahmoud Al-Rubaey, the spokesman for the Al-Sadiqoun Bloc, which represents 'Asaib Ahl Al-Haq in the Iraqi parliament, warned that the resistance factions would not accept any pretext for the continued presence of the foreign forces in Iraq, and said that the weapons of the resistance and the will of the people would remove the occupation forces from all their bases in the country.[27] In a December 9 speech, Akram Al-Kaabi, secretary-general of the Al-Nujaba Movement, said that the resistance was ready to resist the "U.S. occupation," just as it was in 2003, and warned that it would "avenge the death of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, Qasem [Soleimani] and the rest of the martyrs." After making additional threats to declare war on the Americans if they do not withdraw, he added that, even after their withdrawal the militias would continue to regard America as an enemy. He clarified that "fighting and confronting America and its lackeys in the region and the world is a religious and a patriotic duty" that the resistance will never neglect, and that the resistance will not lay down its arms. He also stressed that the Palestinian cause and Jerusalem are "at the heart of the Iraqi resistance."[28]


Nasser Al-Shammari, deputy secretary-general and spokesman for the Al-Nujaba movement, also stated clearly that the withdrawal of the American forces would not lead the group to surrender its weapons, and that the final campaign of the resistance will be in Jerusalem.[29]

On December 28, 2021, the IRCC issued a statement declaring that its members, which previously refrained from taking responsibility for attacks on the U.S. forces for fear of reprisals, would renew their attacks, after declaring a unilateral ceasefire on October 10, 2020.[30] As mentioned, this likely means that the coming attacks will be on a larger scale.

Probable Targets of Future Attacks

The Iran-backed groups and militias have indicated several possible targets for future attacks.

American Convoys and Bases

The Iran-backed groups and militias have indicated several possible targets for future attacks. The obvious targets, as far as they are concerned, are the American logistics support convoys and the bases where the U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq. Telegram channels that support these groups and militias have released posters and video clips which threaten to attack U.S. soldiers by launching rockets or suicide drones at their bases. On December 14, a Telegram channel which the militias shared a poster which shows drones firing rockets at an American military base in Iraq. The accompanying post includes part of a verse from the Quran, "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved (Quran 8:12)."[31]

A poster released by the Sabereen News Telegram channel on December 6, shows an American military base in flames with text in Arabic and English and the number "25," which refers to the number of days remaining until the end of the year – which is the deadline for the withdrawal of the American forces – when the poster was released. The English text on the poster reads: "Stayed 25 Day" [sic] and "Revenge For Blood." An accompanying post reads, "This is how it will look."[32]

On December 1, a pro-Shi'ite Telegram channel released an approximately 60-second video clip showing armed Hizbullah fighters preparing for battle, with a representation of a digital clock counting down and the word "loading" superimposed on the image. The clip also shows the detonation of IEDs on American vehicles, and coffins draped with American flags being unloaded from a plane.[33]

The U.S. Embassy

In addition to the types of attack mentioned above, the Shi'ite groups threaten to attack additional American interests, among them the U.S. Embassy and American forces beyond Iraq's borders.

Several leaders of Iran-backed militias have asserted that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is not an ordinary diplomatic mission. They claim that it is a military base in every way which operates under cover of the embassy and houses a stockpile of weapons and intelligence equipment, and thus is a legitimate military target. These same leaders, who include Nasser Al-Shammari, the spokesman for the Al-Nujaba movement, state that while they themselves have chosen not to attack the embassy, that doesn't mean that other factions are beholden to their decision.[34]

It should be noted that these are not idle threats, and the militias and their supporters have attacked the embassy building in the past. During demonstrations by members of the militias outside the U.S. Embassy following an American attack on militia positions on the Iraq-Syria border in late December 2019, the protestors managed to breach the first circle of security guards and enter the embassy compound.[35] Moreover, during the past two years, several groups have claimed that they fired mortars at the embassy.[36]

In recent months, Telegram channels belonging to armed Shi'ite groups and supporters of the militias have published threats to attack the embassy in a variety of ways, including breaking in and firing rockets. For example, on December 12, the Kaf Telegram channel, which is affiliated with the Hizbullah Brigades, released a poster which shows Hizbullah flags reflected in the windows of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The accompanying post reads: "Closer Than It Seems."[37]

On December 6, 2021, the NJ_Media Telegram channel released a poster depicting the group's rockets targeting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, accompanied by the text, "War of Attrition."[38] And on December 2, a Telegram channel affiliated with the Zulfiqar Forces militia, released a poster which shows two armed fighters observing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and bears a quote from the Quran, "The day We will strike with the greatest assault, [indeed, We will take retribution]"(Quran 44:16).[39]

Targeting American Forces beyond Iraqi Borders

Recently, Ashab Al-Kahf has threatened to attack American convoys in Kuwait. The group has warned that it is tracking the movements of vehicles of the American occupation and those who serve it from the Ali Al-Salem airbase in Kuwait, 23 miles from the Iraqi border, to the "illegal" Jraischan border crossing, between Iraq and Kuwait. The group adds that "when necessary, and if the leadership approves it," it will detonate IEDs before the Jraischan border crossing (i.e. on Iraqi territory) and after the 'Ali Al-Salem base (i.e. in Kuwait).[40] The group later released a poster which shows the Jraischan crossing with the text, "Kuwait welcomes you."[41] Following an approach from the Kuwaiti ambassador in Iraq to the Iraqi National Security Advisor, the group explained that it intends to attack "only the American side and not the residents or the populated areas."[42] It went so far as to call on "the sons of Islam in Kuwait" to take part "in the defense of Islam" with "your brothers" the Iraqis.[43]

In Advance of the December 31, 2021 Deadline

During November 2021, the Sayyid Al-Shuhada' Brigades announced that it was opening a recruitment campaign for volunteers who wish to participate in "expelling U.S. forces from Iraq." The group claims that thousands of people responded and it extended the recruitment period. According to Ryan Al-Kaldani, chairman of the Babylon Brigades, a Christian militia within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), as of December 8, 2021, "more than 50,000 people" had volunteered.[44] It should be noted that on December 8, 2021, Sayyid Al-Shuhada' Brigades leader Abu Ala' Al-Wala'i announced that he was postponing the date for the confrontation with the American forces until after the Christian holidays, "out of respect for Christians in Iraq and around the world."[45]

 


[1] Whitehouse.gov, July 26, 2021.

[2] It should be noted that the militias have reported using these means in the past. See e.g., MEMRI JTTM Report: New Group Affiliated With Iran-Backed Militias In Iraq Claims Responsibility For Drone Attack On U.S. Forces in Erbil, July 25, 2021.

[3] Almayadeen.net, December 10, 2021.

[5] Telegram, December 22, 2021.

[6]  Telegram, December 23, 2021.

[7] Telegram, December 21, 2021.

[8]  Telegram, December 19, 2021.

[9]  Telegram, December 16, 2021.

[10] Telegram, December 16, 2021.

[11]  For more information, see MEMRI JTTM Report: Iran-Backed Militia Claims Responsibility For IED Attack On U.S. Logistic Convoy in Southern Iraq, December 14, 2021.

[12]  Telegram, December 15, 2021.

[13]  Telegram, December 12, 2021.

[15]  Telegram, December 9, 2021.

[16]   Telegram, November 30, 2021.

[17]  Telegram, November 28, 2021.

[18]  Telegram, November 28, 2021.

[22] Tasnim (Iran), November 15, 2021.

[26] Almaalomah.me, November 30, 2021.

[27] Alalam.ir, December 11, 2021.

[29] Almayadeen.net, December 10, 2021.

[31] Telegram, December 14, 2021.

[32]  Telegram, December 6, 2021.

[34] Almayadeen.net, December 10, 2021.

[37] Telegram, December 12, 2021.

[40] For more information, see MEMRI JTTM Report: Armed Shi'ite Group Threatens To Attack American Military Convoys In Kuwait, December 13, 2021.

[41] Telegram, December 16, 2021.

[42] Telegram, December 18, 2021.

[43] Telegram, December 22, 2021.

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