In 2007, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC – QF) formed the group as a small elite unit to attack US forces in Iraq. Its leader was Abu Mahdi Al Mohandes, a former member of Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, who now acts as a representative of Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani in the country. In 2012 Tehran deployed KH to Syria to support the government of Bashar al-Assad. And in 2014 it refocused upon Iraq to fight insurgents there.
Kataib Hezbollah has its origins with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC – QF). In 2007 IRGC-QF created Kataib Hezbollah as a small elite force of around 400 fighters to carry out operations against the United States and Coalition Forces in Iraq.
It received arms and equipment from Tehran as well as training from Lebanese Hezbollah. Starting in March 2007 it began attacking American forces. In July 2009 the US Treasury Department put the organization on its terrorist list and sanctioned it. From 2010-11 it stepped up its attacks as the Americans were preparing to withdraw.
In July 2010, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General Ray Odierno claimed that KH elements were in Iran for training to conduct new operations against the US and Iranian advisers were also said to be in Iraq as well to assist them. On June 6, 2011, KH claimed responsibility for an attack upon a base in Baghdad that killed five US soldiers and also carried out a rocket attack upon the Green Zone three days later. At the end of the month the group killed three more Americans in a rocket barrage on their base in Wasit province near the Iranian border.
KH was created to carry out Iranian policy in Iraq. Tehran felt threatened by the US occupation of the country. There were hostile forces right on its border and the Americans were trying to create a pro-Western government in Baghdad. Iran was intent on undermining these efforts and funded various militias to drive the US out. When the US announced that it would withdraw by the end of 2011 Tehran had its proxies like KH pick up its operation so that Iran could claim credit for the departure of the US.
Kataib Hezbollah next expanded its operations to Syria when Iran’s ally President Bashar al-Assad was threatened.
In 2012 Qasem Soleimani called on Kataib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias aligned with Tehran to send fighters to Syria to help the Assad government. KH helped form the Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade along with Syrian and Lebanese members under the supervision of the Soleimani and the IRGC’s Quds Force.
In early 2013 it formed another militia called Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada along with the Badr Organization to fight in Syria. By April 2013 it made its first public announcements of its involvement in Syria when it posted pictures of some its fighters who had been killed there.
To support and maintain this effort KH began recruiting in Iraq with some of its new fighters being sent to Iran or Lebanon for training. KH justified its involvement in Syria by saying that it was defending the Sayid Zainab shrine in the Damascus suburbs from Sunni Islamists and the Free Syrian Army. That way it could say that it was performing a religious duty and distract from its support of the Assad government at Tehran’s behest. The shrine was also located in a strategic neighborhood that blocked rebels from surrounding the Syrian capital and allowed regime forces access to the Damascus International Airport.
When the protests against the Assad government began, Tehran offered support to break them up. It didn’t believe that the Syrian army was loyal enough or up to the task. So Iran brought in its Iraqi allies such as Kataib Hezbollah, groups that have now become the main forces defending the Assad regime against the rebels. That made Assad dependent upon Iran and its Iraqi proxies. And this strategy would be replayed in Iraq in 2014.
When the Iraqi insurgency was revived this year KH began bringing back its men from Syria to fight at home.
According to Reuters, in April Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a meeting where he told fellow politicians that militias were being deployed to the Baghdad area because he was disappointed with the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). These irregular forces were put under Maliki’s office of commander and chief.
KH was already withdrawing its men from Syria to fight in Iraq by then, and began a new recruiting drive in April as well. These were put into Popular Defense Companies. The next month KH posted video of it helping the ISF. In return, the army was providing uniforms, weapons and support to the group.
Its role was expanded after the fall of Mosul in June. In August it helped break the siege of Amerli in Salahaddin and was said to have Quds Force advisers with it. Like in Syria, its operations were coordinated with General Soleimani.
In December for instance, an Iraqi parliamentarian told the Observer that Soleimani “has the Shia militias, Asai’b ahl al-Haq, Katai’b Hezbollah and the Badr Brigades following his instructions to the letter.” Like in Syria, the Iranian government was not sure of the capabilities of the ISF when open fighting began in Anbar in January. It therefore called on its militia allies once more to protect the government.
Today those groups are half or more of the government’s forces and they have been informally integrated within units of the ISF. Like Damascus, Baghdad is now largely dependent upon Iranian and militia support to fight the insurgents.
KH’s leader Abu Mahdi Muhandis, also known as “The Engineer,” is also a facilitator for Iran’s policies in Iraq. Muhandis, whose real name Jamal Jaafar Mohammed Ibrahimi, joined the Dawa Party in Iraq in the early 1970s. He left for Kuwait later in that decade where he found a job as an engineer in Kuwait City.
In 1983 he aided in the bombings of the US and French embassies there and then made an attempt to assassinate the emir of Kuwait in 1985. These were both planned by the Quds Force to deter Kuwait, France and the Americans from supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War.
Muhandis ended up moving to Iran afterward where he joined the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). He went on to fight on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War and eventually became the deputy commander of ISCI’s militia the Badr Brigade.
Badr was then an official arm of the IRGC, making Muhandis an Iranian officer. In 2002, Muhandis quit ISCI when it decided to work with the Americans in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2005, Muhandis won a seat in the Iraqi parliament as part of the Iraqi United Alliance. But when the US found out who he was it put out an arrest warrant for him and he fled back to Iran.
That didn’t stop him from unsuccessfully running again in 2010 with the Iraqi National Alliance. Between then he funneled weapons to Iranian-backed militias, while providing training for their fighters. When the Americans finally withdrew at the end of 2011, Muhandis returned to Iraq where he worked as Genera Soleimani’s unofficial representative to Baghdad.
In Iraq he lived in a house in the Green Zone under the protection of Premier Maliki. Maliki gave him political cover by saying that the charges against him for the bombings and assassination attempt in Kuwait in the 1980s were never proven. And he even included him in an official delegation to Kurdistan in February 2013. Since 2014 he has facilitated the flow of Iranian funds, logistics and planning to its militia allies in Iraq.
Muhandis’ long alliance with the Iranians explains why he was put in charge of Kataib Hezbollah when it was formed in 2007. He’d been working on conjunction with the IRGC since the 1980s and had a commission in the organization. His long time in the Iraqi opposition also gave him standing and ties with many Shiite politicians that came to power after 2003 making him an ideal middle-man.
Kataib Hezbollah has worked as one of Iran’s main proxies in Iraq and Syria since its creation in 2007. It carried out attacks for Tehran against the Americans, and then moved to defend Iran’s ally President Assad in Syria. Today it is one of the main forces defending Baghdad and its leader Muhandis is helping to supply other pro-Iranian militias as well.
All along it has served Iran’s interests in the region opposing its enemies and helping its friends. Tehran has regularly deployed these types of allies to carry out its policies in the Middle East and beyond.
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