Kataib Hizbullah (Iraq)

The rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2014 has had a long-lasting impact on the balance of power between the Iraqi state and non-state armed groups. A vast number of such groups – most, but not all, of them predominantly Shia – mobilised to fight ISIS. But, since the elimination of the ISIS ‘caliphate’, successive Iraqi prime ministers have struggled to rein them in. The government has incorporated many of the groups into the state security infrastructure under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Nonetheless, a minority referring to themselves as the ‘Islamic Resistance’ have refused to be fully absorbed by the state apparatus, keeping one foot in the PMF while simultaneously undermining the policies of Iraq’s government.

The Islamic Resistance

Shia groups that fall under the Islamic Resistance banner – such as Kataib Hizbullah, the most powerful of them, as well as Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba, and Saraya al-Khorasani – have been committed to pushing US forces out of Iraq, and to fighting ISIS since 2014. These groups frame the government’s tolerance of alleged US encroachments upon Iraqi sovereignty as one of the main reasons for keeping militant units outside the formal chain of command.

Public support for this line of reasoning began to peak in January, following the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMF’s former chief of staff and the founder of Kataib Hizbullah. With varying degrees of plausible deniability, Islamic Resistance groups have challenged Iraq’s foreign policy position by threatening Western diplomatic facilities and the military staff of allied countries in Baghdad (including through support for hardliner offshoot groups, which provide them with convenient cover).

Beyond this, the Islamic Resistance has tapped into three sources of domestic legitimacy to boost its popular support. The first is the formal status bestowed upon the PMF by the November 2016 Hashd law, which defines the paramilitary group as an independent yet integral part of the Iraqi security forces. The second is the fatwa for a defensive jihad against ISIS issued in 2014 by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia Muslim Supreme Religious Authority based in Najaf. The third is the symbolic power attributed to the PMF fighters’ public image as holy warriors – and martyrs – who combat ISIS for the good of the homeland.

Islamic Resistance groups’ gradual entrenchment in the state apparatus has helped them resist targeting by the United States and provided them with access to resources and influence over state decision-making. Several of these groups, including Kataib Hizbullah, made the strategic decision to register some of their forces as PMF brigades. This integration into the Iraqi security forces has allowed them to benefit from state endorsement and protection without compromising on their ideological commitment to the resistance cause. Moreover, this has enabled them to avoid legal liability for their actions, as they have received political protection from the PMF leadership.

With the backing of Muhandis, Kataib Hizbullah expanded its control of the PMF’s administrative affairs directorate, security directorate, training directorate, and intelligence and information agencies. Despite strong objections from some of the PMF formations associated with Iraq’s holy shrines, Kataib Hizbullah veteran Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (also known as Abu Fadak) was appointed as the PMF’s chief of staff in February 2020. The group also has informal authority over some of Iraq’s most controversial coercive institutions, such as Basra’s provincial police forces, known as Quwwat al-Sadma (Shock Troops). Using its military and political power, Kataib Hizbullah has secured access to state benefits, such as salaries for its PMF-registered fighters, and access to important checkpoints and border crossings, which enables it to profit from illicit trade.

More broadly, taking advantage of the muhassasa system – which is based on the allocation of government jobs according to ethnic and religious quotas – Kataib Hizbullah has infiltrated resource-rich state institutions and forged alliances with representatives of both the bureaucracy and other informal stakeholders within Iraq’s socio-economic realm, such as arms brokers, entrepreneurs, factory owners, traders, and tribal leaders. By controlling strategically important government posts, Kataib Hizbullah has gained greater leverage over provincial administrative bodies, expanded its patronage networks, and increased its support base in local communities. Other entities within the PMF (such as Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and its Sadiqoun bloc) attained parliamentary representation through their political wings’ participation in the Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri. Kataib Hizbullah has taken a different approach, exploring links to individuals already affiliated with established Iraqi parties.

These armed factions’ main profit-making schemes focus on taxes, tariffs, extortion and ransom payments, oil revenue, and public contracts, along with control over local businesses and provincial administrative structures. Some of them have also secured a sustainable income through the registration of brigades with the PMF (which provides salaries) and the practice of keeping ‘ghost soldiers’ (who are regularly paid but serve only on paper).

Furthermore, Islamic Resistance factions maintain an important relationship with Iran. (In July 2009, the US Department of State designated Kataib Hizbullah as a foreign terrorist organisation partly due to its links to Iran.) The strong ideological overlap between these groups and Iran is reinforced by their shared perception of the threat posed by the US. The leaders of the Islamic Resistance do not hide their ideological affiliation with Tehran, which has been critical in bolstering their military capabilities. These factions proudly recognise their long-standing ties and deep social relations with Iran; in some cases, they openly discuss their preference for the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist). Under this principle, as enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the supreme leader is regarded as the highest political and religious authority.

Nevertheless, while acknowledging Iran’s support for their cause, Islamic Resistance groups emphasise that they do not take orders from outside powers but rather act in line with Iraqi security priorities (as interpreted through their own world view). Furthermore, they state that the PMF will not evolve to emulate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, citing Iraq’s distinct political climate and the lack of support for such a move among its constituent groups.

Domestic pushback

Kataib Hizbullah’s influence is far from absolute. The group’s social and political capital is at risk following the killing of its patron, Muhandis, and the increased domestic criticism of its alleged involvement in the violent crackdown against widespread anti-government protests this year. Kataib Hizbullah has also faced pushback from other members of the PMF. For instance, it failed to mobilise support from other groups for its campaign against prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the Iraqi intelligence agency, which it accused of facilitating the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. Unlike Kataib Hizbullah, other PMF members prioritise a stable working relationship with state security institutions.

Kataib Hizbullah has also come under pressure from the Iraqi authorities as they struggle to reassure Washington of the government’s commitment to preventing attacks on US facilities. Given the group’s interest in surviving and sustaining the status quo, this pressure – and accompanying US military operations – is likely to force Kataib Hizbullah to moderate its rhetoric, if not its behaviour. The conditional offer of a truce recently put forward by Kataib Hizbullah spokesperson Muhammed Mohi reveals that, more than ever, the group is in search of a face-saving option. Realising that the stakes have been raised, Mohi recognised that the potential closure of the US embassy would be game-changing and, therefore, sought to de-escalate the situation. However, as indicated by the cautious recent statement allegedly made on behalf of the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission, Kataib Hizbullah is unwilling to admit defeat. As it does not want to be seen as having been pushed into a corner, the group has reminded its adversaries that, if US troops “insisted on staying”, they should expect much more violent attacks than those orchestrated in previous months.

While Kadhimi has vowed to exert control over the undisciplined militia-like groups that form the amorphous Islamic Resistance, he has prioritised direct engagement with the PMF leadership. He has made clear that he has no intention of abolishing the PMF or integrating it into the Iraqi army (a measure that the PMF has repeatedly rejected). Kadhimi has sought to persuade PMF leaders to work with him to guarantee their right to operate under the umbrella of the state. Given the comprehensive penetration of state institutions by Kataib Hizbullah and affiliated militias, an ill-timed confrontation between the government and the group would likely push Iran-aligned factions to consolidate their influence within the PMF and be extremely perilous for Iraq. In such a scenario, Kataib Hizbullah and its embedded allies would likely capitalise on the ‘rally round the flag’ effect in a way that would leave the PMF with no good options. Kadhimi would then find it difficult to mobilise support within the PMF for his efforts to contain the destructive behaviour of PMF-affiliated groups such as Kataib Hizbullah.

An opportunity for European engagement

These dynamics may create opportunities to incrementally address the structural deficiencies in Iraqi governance exploited by groups such as Kataib Hizbullah. This is where the European Union should direct its efforts. Instead of mimicking the US in treating most PMF affiliates as Iranian proxies, European countries should adopt a pragmatic approach that focuses on restoring the capabilities of state institutions rather than forcibly disarming groups such as Kataib Hizbullah.

The EU and its member states should adopt a patient and realistic attitude by identifying achievable goals in key areas such as security sector reform. Preventing further violations of Iraq’s fragile sovereignty by external players – be they the US, Turkey, or Iran – would leave pro-Iranian factions with fewer excuses to sustain their covert military operations. The EU could benefit from exploring backdoor diplomacy with political representatives of pro-Iranian factions that have direct links to the Islamic Resistance. In this, Europeans could make use of their credibility as relatively neutral actors who want to avoid further escalation between the US and Iran. As the promising diplomatic reception Kadhimi received during his European tour in October demonstrated, European leaders continue to regard Iraq’s stability as a precondition for boosting regional security and preventing geopolitical tensions between the US and Iran from spiralling out of control. Moreover, in view of the EU’s painful efforts to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and pave the way to a more constructive mode of engagement with Iran, securing Iraq’s neutrality is likely to become an even greater priority for Europeans.

Inna Rudolf is a research fellow at the King’s College London International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, where she is pursuing her PhD at the War Studies Department, focusing on the evolving relationship between the Iraqi state and the PMF as a state-sanctioned paramilitary umbrella group. Rudolf is also a partner at the Candid Foundation in Berlin, and an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.