U.S. Warns Iran Over Rocket Attacks by Shia Militia


“Asaib Ahl al-Haq does not need to be told to rocket the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad,” Knights said. “It’s probably decided to do that on its own. But it’s very close to Iran, so Asaib Ahl al-Haq knows when Iran would object to an escalation against the U.S. and Asaib Ahl al-Haq understands when Iran would welcome an escalation against the U.S. Because they’re very, very close to each other.”

That’s also the case with Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Shia group allegedly behind the rocket attack in Basra. That group is headed by Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist who may also play a pivotal role in the formation of Iraq’s next government. (Indeed, the Institute for the Study of War notes that the firing of the rocket at the U.S. Embassy could be part of an intra-Shia jostling for power ahead of government formation.)

Basra is far to the south of where the U.S. coalition has been fighting ISIS; it has so far been spared most of the violence that wracked Sunni areas in the country’s north. The rocket attack on the U.S. consulate in Basra, a Shia-dominated city in Iraq’s south, came just days after protesters overran and looted the Iranian consulate in the city, setting parts of it on fire, a reflection of the rising anger against Iran’s role in the country. Given that this area is dominated by the Islamic Republic’s Shia coreligionists, those protests were extremely worrying for Iran. Al-Mohandis accused the U.S. of fomenting those protests.

“When the Iranian consulate gets burned, the U.S. consulate gets rockets,” Knights said. Kata’ib Hezbollah “probably do that of their own volition, but with Iran’s support and to the great satisfaction of Iran.”

I asked Ranj Alaaldin, an expert on Shia militias in Iraq at the Brookings Doha Center, about the influence such militias have in Iraq. “Shiite militias in Iraq are diverse and varied, and most are little more than rag-tag criminal groups,” he wrote in an email. “The largest, highly organized, resource-rich, battle-hardened and therefore the most powerful are Iranian proxies.”

Alaaldin wrote that Iran wields influence over these groups largely because their “relationship is personalized and stretches back to the pre-2003 era [prior to the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein] when Iran invested heavily in different Shiite Islamist parties and armed groups to combat the Baath regime.” They serve, he said, “as a button and a buffer” for Iran; “a button that Iran can press to indirectly confront and intimidate those actors that threaten its interests and a buffer that allows Iran to distance itself from these proxies when they commit human rights abuses and engage in criminal activities, lest it becomes accountable for their actions.”   

Or as Knights put it, Iran is “a puppet master and a very effective one.”

“When Iran wants these militias to do something, the militias do it. When Iran wants these militias to stop doing something, they stop doing it,” Knights told me. “That’s why the U.S. government is warning Iran to put these militias in Iraq on notice to stop attacking U.S. diplomatic facilities.”

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Krishnadev Calamur is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers global news. He is a former editor and reporter at NPR and the author of Murder in Mumbai.


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