On June 25, Iraqi forces arrested 14 militants belonging to the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) in an anti-terrorism raid ordered by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The KH members were allegedly planning an attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic compounds. Shortly after the arrest, a “show of force” from KH resulted in the detainees’ release to the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The following week, prominent Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi was assassinated. KH had reportedly threatened Hashimi in November and again two weeks ago.
KH, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, is considered the most secretive Shiite militia operating in Iraq. In January 2020, its leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes was killed in a U.S. airstrike alongside Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force leader Major General Qasem Soleimani. Before leading KH, Mohandes had served in the Iraqi parliament as deputy national security adviser to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and as deputy commander of the PMF. In December 2019, KH fired more than 30 missiles at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops as well as two members of the Iraqi security forces.
The June events demonstrate how the Iraqi government continues to struggle to establish authority over the militias within the country. Since Kadhimi’s ascension into office this May, he has appointed an American-trained general to head the interior ministry, which had previously been staffed by leaders of Iranian-supported militias. Kadhimi also pledged to fight against government corruption, which has also helped Iran gain influence in the Iraqi government.
In July 2019, Iraq’s previous Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi had issued a decree ordering the militias of the PMF, including KH, the Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to choose between full integration into the Iraqi armed forces or disarmament—with opposition to integration meaning they be considered outlaws. It was an attempt by Abdul Mahdi at gaining influence over the Iran-backed militias, which boast more than 120,000 fighters.