Two Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups have threatened violence against the United States in Iraq and the broader region after a proposed U.S. congressional bill designated them as terrorist organizations. On November 3, a bill was introduced the U.S. House of Representatives, entitled “Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act of 2017,” which would impose terrorism-related sanctions with respect to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujaba – both of which are part of Iraq’s Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) and also fight in neighboring Syria under the leadership of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.
Over the past three years, the United States and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) were de facto allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. But with the common foe now militarily defeated, Iranian-supported units within the P.M.F. have dialed up anti-American propaganda and are pressuring the Baghdad government to expel the U.S. troops from the country.
Fighting America and Israel
In an interview with the Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV on December 1, Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of the Nujaba movement, said the U.S. congressional bill “is an indication they [U.S.] fear us.” He continued: “If the Americans intend to reoccupy Iraq, we will fight them again. And if they commit a stupid mistake in Syria or Iraq against the Nujaba and resistance forces, we will deal a crushing blow to them and will target all their interests in the region. If the Syrian and Iraqi governments decide to confront America, we will proudly stand by their side.”
The group’s spokesman, Abu Waris al-Musawi, described the bill as a “conspiracy and a victory for the Islamic State and all other terrorist organizations supported by Washington.” He further claimed that the bill is against Iraq’s security institutions and added that the group is waiting for the Baghdad government to respond to the latest U.S. move. “This step is a plot,” Iran’s Fars News Agency quoted Musawi as saying. “After the defeat of their designs in Iraq, the last of which was the Islamic State, they want to set fire to the region.”
Commanders of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (A.A.H.) have also intensified anti-American rhetoric. After President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a speech on Wednesday, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the group, called for armed struggle against America and Israel. "Trump’s decision to designate Jerusalem the capital of the occupying Zionist entity marks the beginning of the end of the racist Israeli entity. We call on all the free and faithful to unite in a single front to confront arrogant (powers) & enemies of humanity," he wrote on Twitter.
Ties to Iran and transnational Shiite networks
The U.S. bill has also received a great deal of attention inside Iran. On December 1, Iran’s Office for Strengthening Unity, a large union of university students, condemned the congressional bill during the Friday prayer in Tehran. “Nujaba will now act with more determination than in the past to pursue the supreme aspirations of the Islamic community. As the young and triumphant leader of this movement, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, announced, this movement is ready to fight the murderous and baby-killer Zionist regime in the occupied Golan. Today, Nujaba is alongside Hashd al-Shaabi [P.M.F.], Hezbollah, Ansarullah [Houthi rebels in Yemen], Hamas, Islamic Jihad and... The day will come when all movements of the resistance axis will hold the Friday prayer in the occupied Quds. That day will be soon,” the statement said.
A.A.H. and Nujaba are similar in many ways. The latter splintered from A.A.H. after Kaabi formed his own militia group four years ago. Khazali, himself started A.A.H. as a splinter faction of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite paramilitary led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought against the American forces before the 2011 U.S. withdrawal. Both A.A.H. and Nujaba represent the most hardline Shiite, pro-Iran factions in Iraq with their leaders pledging allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The two groups are also participating in the Syrian civil war in support of the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A.A.H. leaders have recently concentrated their rhetoric on mobilizing support for the group within Iraq, although the group maintains close ties with Iran and regional Shiite groups. Khazali frequently goes on speaking tours to Iraqi universities, has a political wing in parliament with a seat on the Council of Representatives, and has lately made overtures in favor of Iraqi unity and constitutionalism. A.A.H. and Nujaba are both part of a new coalition – dubbed as the Mujahedeen Alliance – to contest the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections.
Khazali has lately been chanting slogans of national unity and patriotism. But his call for unity in Iraq runs counter to his previous speeches and actions. In May, he said that his organization aims to establish a “Shiite full moon” not a “Shiite crescent.” In a video published in the Arab media, Khazali added that an alliance of Shiite forces across the region would be ready to achieve that goal by the time the hidden Shiite Imam Mahdi reappears. He noted that the Shiite force will include the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) in Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement in Yemen, the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F) and other Shiite militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq.
A.A.H. has a long history of fighting American troops in Iraq. According to the U.S. government accounts, the Lebanese Hezbollah upon a request by the Iranian government helped form and train AAH in 2005 to carry out attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. Khazali has reportedly pledged allegiance to Khamenei, and his group takes orders from Soleimani rather than the government in Baghdad. This is despite the fact that AAH is part of the P.M.F., which has been incorporated into the Iraqi security forces.
Khazali was arrested by the U.S. military in 2007 for his alleged role in high-profile attack in Karbala that had killed five American service members. But he was released two years later along with other AAH members – apparently in an exchange for a British hostage. The U.S. and British government denied it was a prisoner exchange. Last year, Khazali hinted that his fighters could blend in with Iraqi troops to kill American advisers in Mosul.
Akram al-Kaabi, on the other hand, has been focusing more to project influence outside Iraq. He considers himself a revolutionary who is willing to bring down the Iraqi state in the name of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Kaabi has also had meetings with high-profile Shiite leaders from across the region. He travels frequently to Iran and Lebanon to meet high-ranking Iranian officials, including Khamenei and Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah. In October, he met with the top Shiite sheikh in Lebanon, Afif al-Nabulsi, the cleric who notoriously gave Hezbollah the religious authorization to participate in Lebanese politics. In November, Kaabi also held a meeting in Lebanon with the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, Hashim Safi Al Din, in which they stressed the need to preserve the achievements of the Islamic resistance in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, and confront the countries that are trying to eliminate them, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Unlike nationalist groups within the P.M.F. that follow Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Kaabi has deliberately inserted himself into transnational Shiite politics. Militarily, Nujaba makes up a significant contingent of Iraqi fighters in Syria. Without a permission from Baghdad, Kaabi recently deployed his forces to help the Iranian-led offensive in the Syrian city of Abu Kamal near the Iraqi border. He stated in an interview that “high levels of coordination between security forces on the Iraqi and Syrian sides of the border will achieve victory more quickly” against ISIS. After the seizure of Abu Kamal, Soleimani gave a speech to the fighters involved in the operation and specifically lauded “the courage of the fighters of Harakat al-Nujaba.”
In March, the Nujaba movement announced the creation of a new brigade to seize the Golan Heights – claiming that “latest victories” against the Islamic State and Sunni rebels in Iraq and Syria have allowed the group and its allies to focus on Israel. Leaders of the group claimed that members of the new brigade are highly-trained, well-equipped and capable of fighting the Jewish state. “Israel is weaker than a spider web. Islamic resistance is capable of confronting the axis of evil and annihilating the occupying Zionist regime,” Kaabi told Lebanon-based Arabic-language al-Mayadeen news network.