The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.
In recent weeks, there have been a series of attacks in Iraq on operatives, positions, and weapons depots of Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militias. These have included a July 19, 2019 attack on the Al-Shuhada base in the Amerli region, some 100 km from the Iranian border, in which 30 people were killed, and an August 25 attack, apparently aerial, on a convoy of the Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (Popular Mobilization Units, PMU) militia's 45th Brigade in the Al-Qaim region near the Syrian border, in which at least two people were killed. One of those killed was the brigade's logistical support chief, Kazem 'Ali Muhsen, aka Abu 'Ali Al-Dabi.
Militia officials are blaming the U.S. and Israel for the attacks and have threatened to respond forcefully, including against the U.S. Embassy and consulates and other U.S. interests in the country. Demonstrating the seriousness of this threat, militias have reported in the past few days that they are firing at suspicious drones flying over their positions.
Further, the Qom, Iran-based Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Kazem Hosseini Haeri issued a fatwa prohibiting any further U.S. presence in Iraq, and stating that the only option is "resistance, defense, and confronting the enemy." He added he would take up arms himself were he capable of doing so.
It appears that the Iraqi government is seeking to prevent an escalation on its soil and to balance its relations with Iran and the militias it backs against its relations with the U.S. Thus, it has announced that it will act through diplomatic channels to prevent more attacks, and that its armed forces are ready to respond to them if they do occur. At the same time, messages were conveyed to the militias to rein in their reactions to attacks. For example, an announcement released following a meeting among Iraqi President Barham Salih, Prime Minister 'Adel 'Abd Al-Mahdi, and parliamentary speaker Muhammad Al-Halbousi called the August 25 attack on the PMU's 45th Brigade convoy "aggression against Iraqi sovereignty" and referred to those killed as "Iraqi martyrs," but added, "The state's source of authority" – that is, the Iraqi government – "must be respected," and that circumventing it caused "harm to the national interest and the law." Likewise, it stressed that "we must not be drawn into the policy of [either] the [Iranian or the Western] axis, and we must resist turning Iraq into an arena of war and prevent a situation in which Iraq becomes a base for attacking its neighbors."
Prime Minister 'Abd Al-Mahdi announced on August 27, at the conclusion of a government meeting, that Iraq was ready to respond with determination and using all means at its disposal to any aggression originating either within or outside of Iraq, and that Iraqi armed forces were on high alert "to defend Iraq, its citizens, and the state, and all diplomatic representations operating in it" – possibly referring to the Shi'ite militias' threat to harm U.S. representations.
This government policy prompted criticism from militia officials and militia representatives in the Iraqi parliament; they said that the Iraqi government was not doing enough to deter the U.S. and Israel from attacking them and threatened widespread protests in the country.
Clear evidence of the tension between the Iraqi government and the Shi'ite militias that are part of the PMU, which by law is subordinate to the government, can be found in a dispute that erupted between PMU chief Falih Fahad Al-Fayyad and his deputy Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis. When the latter blamed the U.S. for the attack on the PMU, Al-Fayyad, who is also national security advisor to the prime minister and was appointed PMU chief by the government, said that Al-Muhandis' statements do not represent the PMU's position.
This report will review reactions in the Shi'ite militias and their supporters to these events:
On August 21, one day after an attack on the PMU's Balad air force base in Salah province, PMU deputy commander Al-Muhandis, as noted, blamed the U.S. for the attack and threatened to fire upon any foreign aircraft circling over PMU bases. He stated: "We have accurate information that the Americans have in the past year sent four Israeli drones into Iraq via Azerbaijan to operate as part of the U.S. forces, in order to carry out sorties against Iraqi Army positions. We have information, maps, and lists of all the types of American aircraft that have taken off, when they have landed, and how many hours they spent in Iraqi skies.
"Recently they conducted surveillance against our positions, instead of against the Islamic State [ISIS], and collected information about PMU brigades, weapons depots, and equipment... The American forces are the main culprits in what is happening... Our only option is to defend ourselves and our positions by using the weapons now [in our possession] and advanced weaponry... We see every foreign aircraft circling above our positions without Iraqi government authorization as enemy aircraft, and we will use all means of deterrence to prevent strikes on our positions."
Al-Muhandis' announcement appears to have stirred resentment in Prime Minister Al-Mahdi, since by law the PMU is under his control, and he fears an escalation of tensions and damage to Iraq-U.S. relations. PMU chief Al-Fayyad hastened to clarify that the statements "attributed to the PMU deputy chief... do not represent the PMU's official position. It is the armed forces' commander in chief [i.e. the prime minister] or his proxy who express the official position of the Iraqi government and its armed forces."
Despite PMU head Al-Fayyad's announcement, deputy head Al-Muhandis is supported by many PMU-member Shi'ite militias, which brings into question the Iraqi government's ability to enforce its authority over these militias. An August 22, 2019 Hizbullah Brigade announcement stated: "We blame the Americans for the attack on the Iraqi military positions, and we know that they are planning more attacks, either direct attacks or by encouraging the Zionists to carry them out... It is not out of the question that they are planning to assassinate fighters and strike national figures, even holy sites..."
Threatening retaliation against U.S. interests in Iraq in the event of any further attack, the announcement continued: "We address a final warning to the American enemy: Any new strike on any Iraqi position will be met with a firm and harsh response, giving you a taste of cruel and sudden death. Your fortresses will not protect you, because they are all within range of our missiles... We keep our word and do what we say we will do. Be assured that if a clash begins, it will end only with your final expulsion from the region, and you will know what price you will pay."
Hizbullah Brigades spokesman Muhammad Muhyi called on the U.S. to take this warning seriously, "because there will be a genuine, determined, and harsh response to any future U.S.- or Israel-backed attack on any security forces' position. The U.S. is to blame, and it will bear the responsibility for what will follow... The fight will continue until it reaches its final stage, that will lead those involved in idiotic deeds to a direct conflict that will [in turn] lead... to the final battle that will end in the eradication of Israel." He added that the recent attacks were planned in advance and were carried out following U.S. or Israeli drone surveillance.
Siding with PMU deputy leader Al-Muhandis, PMU official Hadi Al-Jazaeri stated that the PMU factions' response to any future attack would be as described by Al-Muhandis, "because he is the true PMU leadership." He reiterated that any aircraft flying over PMU positions without Iraqi government authorization would be considered hostile.
Muhammad Mahdi Al-Bayati, chief of the Badr organization's northern sector, criticized the Iraqi government and called on it to "take a bold stand in light of the Zionist attacks on PMU positions and commanders." He warned: "The government's silence will push the masses opposing the foreign presence into the streets, in large protest demonstrations, to compel Prime Minister 'Adel 'Abd Al-Mahdi and parliament to expel the American forces from the country."
In recent days, the militias have actualized their threat to fire on drones flying over PMU positions. On August 23, it was reported that shots were fired at a drone above the PMU's 12th Brigade's position in the Baghdad region. According to the report, the drone was "forced to leave before completing its mission."
On August 25, it was reported that a drone was downed near the PMU's 50th Brigade base in Nineveh.
Similar threats were expressed by Iraqi MPs representing the Shi'ite militias. Hassan Salem, MP from the Sadiqoun faction and senior official in the 'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haq movement, which is designated a Foreign Terror Organization by the U.S., pointed at the U.S.-Israel connection and called for closing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He said:
"The Zionist entity has an embassy within the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and it has a security-intelligence-espionage arm that carries out various missions, including assassinations, explosions, and bomb placement... There will be no security in Iraq without the closure of this Embassy, that is in essence two embassies, not one... There is no option but to end the American coalition's presence, which is the main reason for the infiltration of Iraqi airspace."
On another occasion, Salem said: "Iraq can expel the American forces by both military and political means. We will begin to act within parliament but if we do not succeed at this for any reason then we will turn to the armed option that Washington knows so well. The Iraqi government's silence is unwarranted, and perhaps even increases the Israeli attacks. We in the resistance factions have both a political and military option, and we have the armed capability to strike at American interests in the country."
The Al-Fath Coalition, which is headed by Hadi Al-'Amari, announced following the August 25 attack on the PMU convoy: "We reserve the right to react to these Zionist attacks, and lay full blame for this aggression on the international coalition, particularly the U.S. This is a declaration of war on Iraq... There is no need for an American presence [here]..."
The militias' threats to respond to additional attacks on them were supported by Qom, Iran-based Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Kazem Hosseini Haeri. On August 22, 2019, he called for responding to the aggression and acting to expel the U.S. forces from Iraq in an announcement to Shi'ite militia fighters, stating:
"...I have been informed of the recurring attacks on your bases and weapons depots in recent days by foreign hostile aircraft that, according to the results of an investigation by my sons [i.e. the Shi'ite militias], have turned out to be Zionist, and supported by the American forces in the region... We, like others, know that the American politicians are not blessed with the necessary courage and capability to learn their lesson from their defeats in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Palestine, where they lost billions [of dollars' worth] of their country's resources and spilled the blood of their own citizens in failed adventures and perverse schemes in the Islamic world and the rest of the world. [Therefore they came] to the point where they recruited their agents and their bases in the region and in the world to attack Al-Qaeda and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
"Today we see that they are investing most of their efforts in sitting down with some of these entities and directly negotiating with them in order to leave with an agreed-upon plan. Who among us does not know, for example, that [deposed Iraqi president] Saddam [Hussein] was one of their perversities, and they were forced in the end to bring him down, at great cost, and that the ISIS project is [also] directed by them and that they even openly transported its [i.e. ISIS's] leaders from the battlefield in their [i.e. the Americans'] helicopters after they lost the confrontation with our sons from the brave [Iraqi] armed forces. This was after they [i.e. the Americans] had spent huge amounts and made tremendous efforts to establish it [ISIS]...
"In the clash with our sons in the sacred PMU, the U.S. is taking advantage of the permission [to operate given it by the Iraqi] government to carry out aerial intelligence operations in the country, and [is also taking advantage of] the senior [Iraqi] officials' decision to disregard the attack on the country's sovereignty and airspace...
"In this context, I say clearly and out of religious responsibility that no U.S. military force or its ilk must be left remaining, on any pretext whatsoever – whether it be for training, advisory, or military purposes, or for fighting the terrorism that it trained … Our devoted men in the armed forces must continue their honorable and legitimate defense of Islam and of the state and its honor in the face of any aggression against its territory or airspace or the positions of its brave forces. Oh my sons, you have but one choice: [to continue your] resistance, defense, and clashing with the enemy that is so lowly and defeated that the tyrant Trump could not enter your land openly. If I were only capable... of taking up arms, I would do so and fight in your ranks…"
Shi'ite militia members treated Grand Ayatollah Haeri's announcement like a fatwa, and called for implementing it. 'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haq senior official and MP Hassan Salem said: "Following Kazem Hosseini Haeri's announcement, we must act to expel the American forces from the homeland. The Iraqi government must announce to the American forces that they have a short time to clear out their equipment and withdraw their troops, and that afterwards they – their embassies, consulates, and all their positions – will be within range of the sons of the Islamic resistance. Their excuses will no longer be accepted. We want no training, support, or transfer of knowhow."
Nasr Al-Shamari, assistant secretary-general of the Al-Nujaba militia, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, said: "The Iraqi resistance is present and will carry out its job and role as long as necessary. We now have a clear fatwa by the religious authority [Haeri] regarding the continued presence of the American forces in Iraq, and we will act to implement it by every political and military [means] at our disposal. It is the Americans who imposed the terms of the new confrontation after the attack on the PMU positions and depots. We are committed to defending ourselves."
On August 27, a Shi'ite group called Jund Al-Imam Al-Hujja posted a two-minute video in which a masked fighter threatens to implement the fatwa regarding the U.S. interests in Iraq, saying: "We heed the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Kazem Haeri, who called to strike the forces of the American occupation... Let Trump know that [America's] sites, bases, and interests – both military and civilian – are legitimate targets, at the mercy of the weapons of our mujahideen, who, with Allah's help, will bring Hell upon them and shake the ground beneath them. We will not rest until we drive out every last soldier of the infidel occupation."
To view a MEMRI TV clip of this video, click below:
* N. Mozes is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.
Almaalomah.com, August 26, 2019.
Almaalomah.com, August 27, 2019.
Central-media.org, August 21, 2019.
Iraqnewspaper.net, August 21, 2019.
Kataibhezbollah.com, August 22, 2019.
Alahednews.com.lb, August 23, 2019.
Alansaar.net, August 24, 2019.
Almaalomah.com, August 25, 2019.
Almaalomah.com, August 26, 2019.
Almayadeen.net, August 23, 2019.
Aalansaar.net, August 25, 2019.
Alansaar.net, August 22, 2019.
Alansaar.net, August 26, 2019.
Almaalomah.com, August 25, 2019.
This apparently refers to U.S. President Donald Trump's December 26, 2018 visit to American troops at the Ain Al-Assad military base in Iraq, which was publically announced only after it took place.
Alhaeri.org, August 22, 2019.
Almaalomah.com, August 24, 2019.
Baghdadtoday.news, August 24, 2019.
According to its Facebook page, the group was founded in April 2018 to fight "the American occupation in Iraq" (page was accessed on August 28, 2019, is now defunct). So far there have been no reports of the group's activity and it is unclear whether it is part of the PMU.
Youtube.com/watch?v=7b-hH3y3ooY, August 27, 2019.