Few people inside or outside Iraq had heard of the “Blood Guardians” before militants claimed responsibility for firing a rocket barrage at the northern town of Erbil that targeted an Iraqi base housing American troops.
The attack, which killed a civilian contractor and injured a US soldier two weeks ago, sparked President Joe Biden’s first military act, as he ordered US fighter jets to launch strikes in Syria against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias last week.
It was a first test of how the Biden administration would respond to provocative activists, while also highlighting the challenges Washington faces as it seeks to re-engage with Iran on its nuclear deal and defuse it. the tensions that exploded during Donald Trump’s presidency.
A legacy of hostilities between the Trump administration and Iran is the emergence of more than a dozen shadowy “resistance” groups in Iraq, such as “the Blood Guardians,” which have stepped up attacks on personnel. and US assets over the past. year.
Analysts say this is a trend that accelerated after the Trump administration assassinated Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi militia leader, during of an American drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020. The stated objective of many groups is to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis – heroes of the Shiite militias.
The groups have added a new layer of militancy that creates a more unpredictable environment in a fragile nation that is home to 2,500 American troops and where American and Iranian rivalries take place. They threaten to be a complicating factor as Biden seeks to move away from Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, reduce regional tensions and join the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
“This is the raison d’être of these [Iraqi] groups to drag the United States into conflict, ”said Sajad Jiyad, a Century Foundation member based in Baghdad.
Analysts suspect that Erbil’s attack was that Tehran was using its proxies to increase pressure on Washington before any further diplomacy, although the Pentagon said it had found no evidence that Iran had led the assault.
“People assume that Biden can come and completely change US policy in the region overnight, but he’s inherited a very hot conflict and there are very different things in motion,” said Renad Mansour, analyst. Iraqi at Chatham House, who published a report on the militias last week.
He added that the emergence of dark groups with opaque leadership makes it harder for the Biden administration to know who to engage with and complicates the Iraqi government’s hopes of pursuing meaningful security reform.
The picture is blurred by the fact that the “resistance” groups are seen as fronts for more established Iran-backed paramilitary forces that are deeply embedded in Iraq’s political and security structures, including the Organization. Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah.
U.S. defense officials said last week’s airstrikes, which struck near an Iraqi border area controlled by Iran-aligned militias, targeted Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada – not the group that claimed responsibility for the Erbil attack.
Kata’ib Hezbollah – whom Trump blamed for a barrage of rockets against US forces in Iraq in December 2019 that prompted him to order Soleimani’s assassination – denied being involved. But US defense officials have said those claiming responsibility are “just front groups created to help deny attribution of established groups.”
The established movements have grown in strength since they and other militias were mobilized in 2014 to counter Isis’ advance. They capitalized on their role in the territorial defeat of the jihadists to strengthen their popular support and expand their political ambitions.
On the security front, more than a dozen militias are placed under the auspices of Popular Mobilization Units, or Hashd al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force that numbers more than 100,000 people and has received a budget of 2.6 billion dollars from government last year.
Besides attacks on US interests, more obscure militant groups are accused of killing and intimidating peaceful protesters, activists and critics.
Michael Knights, a member of the Washington Institute, said establishing “fronts” was a strategy developed by Soleimani, who led the Iranian Quds Force, the overseas arm of the elite Revolutionary Guards. It gives establishment groups “plausible deniability” so as not to undermine their popular support.
“This is a very logical part of a strategy to undermine the Iraqi state while building these groups politically,” Knights said. “These people want to have Hashd’s payroll. . . but at the same time want to disobey the Iraqi chain of command and undertake terrorist attacks inside and outside Iraq.
The irony, Mansour said, was that Muhandis was striving to improve control and centralization of the militias before the Trump administration killed him.
“The murder of Muhandis has shaken the process of precarious centralization in Iraq,” he said. “While many have claimed that he was a major player in the Iraqi government’s crackdown on protesters in 2019 and therefore should be lifted, the strike, like the previous military action in the country, has failed. no longer succeeded in better protecting the demonstrators. . . or strengthen Washington’s interests to reduce Iranian influence.
He said he spoke to fighters from “vanguard” groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, which lack a grassroots support base, who said they did not know who their leaders were.
The challenge for Washington, Mansour added, was “this revenge is going to take years.”
“These guys will not forget the murder of Muhandis.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington