After a U.S. strike last week in the middle of Baghdad killed a Kataib Hezbollah militia leader, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister lashed out, saying U.S. forces “jeopardize civil peace, violate Iraqi sovereignty, and disregard the safety and lives of our citizens.”
There was more anger at a funeral Wednesday in the holy city of Karbala for 17 other slain militiamen, attended by local politicians, religious leaders and members of the country’s military, where relatives emphasized the militiamen’s service to Iraq.
Mohammed Qadim Abed Hamza held a portrait of his 60-year-old father, Kadhim Abed al-Hamza, killed in the U.S. strikes. The United States, he said, wants to “weaken” Iraqi militias formed to defeat the Islamic State extremist group nearly a decade ago. His father joined up at the beginning of that fight, at the urging of Iraq’s highest Shiite religious leader. So did Mohammed, now 29, and three of his brothers.
Pressure is building on Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to confront the United States and to accelerate negotiations aimed at winding down the U.S. military presence in Iraq. For the Biden administration, Iraq’s reaction illustrates the challenges of sustaining a security partnership with Baghdad while containing the rapidly spreading fallout from ally Israel’s war in Gaza and fending off attacks from groups aligned with the Iraqi government.
Attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq and elsewhere began to surge in October, as Iranian-backed groups said they would retaliate for Israel’s offensive in Gaza. In Iraq, the attacks disturbed a rare period of calm that had held since the fall of 2022, when Sudani took office.
On Jan. 28, three U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack on a base in Jordan near the Syrian border. Five days later, on Feb. 2, the Biden administration struck targets in Syria and in the western Iraqi towns of al-Qaim and Akashat.
For a time, there was hope that the escalation could be contained. The United States had chosen not to strike Iran directly. And Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Iranian-backed militant groups, pledged on Jan. 30 to suspend its attacks on American troops to avoid “embarrassment” to the Iraqi government.
But then came the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last week that killed Abu Baqir al-Saedi, a senior Kataib Hezbollah commander. Two days later, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, the umbrella group that includes Kataib Hezbollah, announced it would resume attacks on U.S. targets.
The Americans “do blame Iran, and they talk about Iran,” said Farhad Alaaldin, a foreign affairs adviser to Sudani. “Yet they carry out attacks in Iraq.”
“Iraq regards America as a strategic partner and not an enemy,” he said. “We are afraid that pushing Iraq to the verge is the wrong strategy.”
While the groups the United States has targeted are backed by Iran, they also belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group for militias that drew thousands of volunteers to fight the Islamic State.
The groups were formally incorporated into the government in 2016. PMF members receive salaries, pensions, weapons and other benefits and answer to Iraq’s prime minister.
Saedi illustrated the overlapping roles. As a leader in Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked group formed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he headed Syria operations for the militia and was responsible for “directly planning and participating in attacks” on U.S. troops, according to U.S. Central Command.
But in Iraq, Saedi was also “basically a government employee,” said Hussein Mounes, a member of the parliament here and the head of Huquq, a political party associated with Kataib Hezbollah. He had a badge identifying him as a member of the PMF and even a “government car,” Mounes said.
“His wife, his kids, all are Iraqis going to Iraqi schools,” he said. “The problem with the United States is, they consider whoever is defending the country as an Iranian.”
U.S. officials do at times struggle with the distinctions. After Saedi was killed, the Pentagon’s press secretary pushed back against the notion that the U.S. military had targeted a figure with an official Iraqi government role.
“As we conduct these strikes, we are very focused on Iranian-backed proxy groups and not PMF,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. Asked to clarify, he added: “as I understand it, the folks that we’re striking are not part of the PMF.”
The drone strike on Tower 22 in Jordan caused the first deaths of U.S. service members in Iraq or Syria since 2020. U.S. officials say their response targeted two groups: Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which they say are responsible for attacks on U.S. facilities since Oct. 7.
But the leader of another group targeted in the U.S. strikes, the Tafuf Brigade, which also belongs to the PMF, said men under his command had not participated in attacks against the United States. The leader, Qassim Muslih, told The Washington Post that Washington had made a mistake in striking his group in Akashat.
“I believe there is inaccurate information by the CIA and the U.S. military intelligence,” he said, speaking as the last guests left the funerals in Karbala. The dead, he said, included nurses who worked in a medical unit, a chef, a baker and security guards.
Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House who has studied Iraq’s militias, said the Tafuf Brigade, while a military force, was not known to be on the front line of attacks against the United States.
A senior U.S. defense official, asked about the U.S. strikes on Akashat, said the area was affiliated with Iranian-backed groups that had taken part in attacks against U.S. facilities. “It’s a legitimate target,” the official said.
U.S. officials say Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has less control over militias in Iraq than it did under former chief Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in early 2020. They now believe the IRGC can set parameters for the militias, but under Soleimani’s replacement, Ismail Qaani, they operate more autonomously.
Iraq was still living with the consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to kill Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a founder of Kataib Hezbollah and deputy leader of the PMF, Mansour said. Their deaths gave rise to a “resistance dynamic” in Iraq, with militias increasingly deploying violence for domestic political bargaining or to press for the exit of the United States.
To the militias, he added, “there is a logic to this violence,” which fell short of declaring war. But the United States didn’t see it that way. If there were unspoken ground rules, he said, the killing of the three Army reservists, all members of a Georgia-based unit, breached them.
Mounes, the member of parliament, called the dynamic a “deterrence equation” but said Iraq’s “resistance factions” felt their demands had not been met and the equation had outlived its usefulness.
“We are talking about war and weapons,” he said. “Not a romantic relationship.”
Sudani, the prime minister, has been left to cope with the fallout, including U.S. strikes in his nation’s capital and intensifying demands that American troops withdraw.
“There are some complexities in Iraqi society, which we understand,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “We understand that Prime Minister Sudani, who we consider a partner, has to navigate those complexities,” the official continued. “But that doesn’t really change that obligation” for the Iraqi government to prevent violence against U.S. personnel there.
“We have been obsessing over a divorce between the Iraqi security structure and these militias for a decade,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), said in an interview last week. “My sense is that the Iraqi government has just been willfully reliant on the militias despite our repeated offers to help them become independent.”
Iraqi analysts and officials said there is little chance Sudani would confront the militias, given his weak position but also his government’s emphasis on providing Iraqis with stability and economic development. Some of the most powerful militias are also keen to avoid a clash that would threaten their growing political and economic clout.
The Iraqi government “just wants this to be over with,” Mansour said.
Before the latest escalations, he said, Sudani was poised “to achieve something quite important: to choreograph this American withdrawal” — an outcome that also interested the Biden administration. Formal negotiations over the withdrawal of U.S-led coalition troops started in January.
The challenge since the beginning of the Gaza war is that the administration “cannot be seen to be withdrawing and retreating at a moment of weakness.”
“This is all planned out,” he said. “They want a beautifully choreographed scene, where they shake hands.”