On the 27th day of the war on Gaza, something started to happen in Baghdad. The Popular Mobilization Forces began to show footage of an “emergency” meeting that was held in wake of the battles between the Israelis and Palestinian Hamas movement.
The meeting was attended by the majority of the main leaders of the Iraqi armed factions. Chief of Staff Abdulaziz al-Mohammedawi, known as Abou Fadak, warned of an impending war in the region.
The position of chief of staff is a senior post in the Iraqi military, but the PMF borrowed the title after 2016 to oversee military operations. As a result, Abou Fadak now boasts privileges superior to those of the PMF leader, Faleh al-Fayyad.
Abou Fadak is a former leader of the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and he plays a central role in the armed factions. Many members of the factions believe that he is the successor of the PMF deputy leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who along with Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani, were killed in a US strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020.
Abou Fadak’s warning appeared routine given the tensions in the region, but he then uttered a statement that sounded coded: “The situation in the region is sensitive and what will take place will hinge on how committed we are to what we agreed upon.”
So what had they agreed upon? And who are “they”?
The details of this agreement and the parties to it started to emerge on the 28th day of the war when Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah delivered his first televised speech since Hamas carried out its Al-Aqsa Flood operation on October 7. Without outlining what that “Lebanese resistance” will do next, Nasrallah praised the Iraqi factions for attacking American troops deployed in their country.
At that moment, it appeared as though the pro-Iran factions in Iraq had shifted to the forefront of the so-called Resistance Axis and that a new front to Gaza had been opened in Baghdad, which is ruled by a politically powerful government sitting on a $450 billion budget.
Ain al-Asad: The first attack
Days later, a group calling itself the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” emerged, declaring that it will start carrying out revenge attacks against American forces in Iraq and Syria after they confirmed that “they were providing support to the Israeli troops in Gaza”, they said in a statement on Telegram.
On November 17, the group announced that they had attacked the Ain al-Asad base west of Baghdad using two drones. This was the first attack carried out by the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” and the strings connecting the Al-Aqsa Flood operation and Abou Fadak’s “coded” message began to appear.
Soon after the attack, Abou Fadak would disappear from the scene, even though he had declared the state of emergency himself. More attacks would follow, reaching more than 150 against American bases in Iraq and Syria as of January 29, when this report was completed.
The attacks targeted the Ain al-Asad base, the second largest air base in Iraq after the Balad base, and Harir, which is used by the Americans as a landing site for their fighter jets when they were fighting ISIS in 2015.
The attacks also targeted American bases in Syria: Al-Tanf, al-Shadadi, al-Malikiya, al-Rukban, Abou Hajar, Tal Abdo, Rmeilan, Green Village and Al-Omar oil field.
Data from the Islamic Resistance in Iraq showed that a third of the attacks targeted the Ain al-Asad and Harir.
Since declaring a state of emergency, the PMF, which says it is affiliated with the government, was never tied to any of the attacks against the American forces. All the attacks were claimed by the Islamic Resistance.
It is said that the Resistance is formed by the several factions, such as the al-Nujaba movement, Kataib Hezbollah, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and that they joined it after rejecting negotiations to stop the escalation, according to media leaks quoting sources close the ruling Coordination Framework coalition.
It is difficult to differentiate between this coalition, which succeeded in forming a government headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in November 2022, and armed Shiite factions.
The factions are playing a very complicated role. They hold a lot of power in the PMF, which operates under government cover, and they also enjoy “ideological immunity.” They, however, are not outwardly present in government institutions to appear as though they have “nothing to lose.”
Iraq’s Shiite to liberate Jerusalem
Two weeks before Abou Fadak declared the “state of emergency”, a medium rank Iraqi officer working for the PMF was on his way back from Syria to southern Iraq. He received a telephone call from another officer who briefed him on the “latest situation.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity to Asharq Al-Awsat, the officer said the Iraqi factions were on a state of alert without even being ordered to do so. It is as if they were “thirsting for some war.” At the time, “all we did was create incitement through the media. It was necessary to consolidate the role of the Shiites of Iraq in liberating Jerusalem,” he went on to say.
It may have been coincidence that Iranian officials visited Baghdad in the coming days. They were delivering “urgent messages” that reflected the mood that prevailed among the factions.
In the first week since the Al-Aqsa operations, the Iranians held a series of meetings with politicians who are members of the Coordination Framework and field leaders of the armed Shiite factions.
The officer said: “They informed us that we are a part of Iran and its strength in the region. You are the hand that strikes to protect Shiism. It is time to not only liberate Jerusalem, but to rule the entire region (...) it is your golden age.”
The Iranians lamented that had Tehran been located in closer positions, such as al-Anbar in western Iraq, “we would have liberated Jerusalem in a handful of days,” the officer quoted them as saying. He revealed that Iraqi officials were “enraged” by these comments.
The Anbar province borders Syria. It boasts a vast desert and for years, was the arena for al-Qaeda and ISIS activity. After the liberation of Iraq from ISIS in 2017, the PMF units redeployed in those regions under the pretext of securing them and preventing the return of the “terrorists”.
However, an aide in the Sunni Taqadum party, led by former parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, refuted the claims. He said these armed formations “serve a political agenda aimed at preventing the representatives of the province from playing central roles that may irritate the Shiite forces.”
He added that the continued deployment of these units in areas close to the Syrian border is “very important” to Iraq to ensure that resistance groups in the region remain connected geographically.
Before the Iranian officials left Baghdad, they tasked an “Arab” figure to remain there, work closely with the Iraqi groups and follow up on the developments in Gaza. Despite various information, it remains difficult to verify who this person was and from which country he comes from.
All that this report could verify was that the factions call him “Al-Hajj” and he has effectively assumed the position of leader of the command centers of the “resistance”, revealed leaderships of local Shiite factions.
“Al-Hajj” is a title that is commonly used by members of the Lebanese Hezbollah instead of the adoption of military ranks. Media close to the party often uses the title to describe prominent Hezbollah military official Mohammed al-Kawtharani and other leaders.
It is likely that Kawtharani has been running the field operations of the pro-Iran Iraqi factions since mid-2021. A former government official said: “The Lebanese Hezbollah has effectively replaced Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.”
This ex-official used to hold a senior position in the governments of former PMs Haidar al-Abadi and Adel Abdul Mahdi. He left his post when Mustafa al-Kadhimi became prime minister in 2019.
Before the PMF declared their state of emergency, “Al-Hajj” met with leaders of the Coordination Framework and armed factions in a “safe place” south of Baghdad. They agreed to “pester the American forces with calculated strikes in several regions.” In all likelihood, these officials were party to the “coded” statement that Abou Fadak made days later.
Field leaders in Iraqi factions that were recently active in al-Anbar and Kirkuk said the groups that have upped their activity since November are one bloc inside a single system. In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat in December, they said that the tactic relies on groups that can move flexibly in setting up rockets and launching them in a short period of time.
The changes that took place in the past two months of 2023 called for their deployment in new locations to make sure their attacks can reach bases in Erbil and Syria.
So, the factions adopted an “agile” method in carrying out the attacks, said the leader of a small group in an armed faction that has been deployed north of Baghdad in for the past three months.
The groups effectively need four or six members who can launch a rocket or fire a drone while other members of the faction would secure their route and choose the location from where to fire them. Such operations generally need a large truck and one or two smaller vehicles used for surveillance and cases of emergency.
So far, it appears as though the factions have only used three types of rockets in the attacks that they carried out since November 17. All the rockets have been developed by Iran since 2022.
The rockets don’t have the capacity to cause major damage, which is in line with the current agreement, revealed the leader of the local group.
The Iraqi factions have gone through various stages of formation and restructuring. The conflict in Syria was a prime location for many of these groups to be formed. There, the Iranians needed a more organized structure so that they could firmly control the ground with the Syrian army.
The al-Nujaba movement and the Kataib Hezbollah may have been set up in Iraq, but other factions actually were formed and took shape in Syria. They grew in power after the eruption of the war in Ukraine because the Iranians feared that the Russians would be distracted by that conflict and neglect Syria.
Who came first Sudani or the ‘Framework’?
Before becoming prime minister in November 2022, Sudani seemed to be an ambitious “second class” Shiite politician.
In December 2019, he resigned from the Islamic Dawa and State of Law coalition, both of which are headed by former PM Nouri al-Maliki, two months after the eruption of popular protests against the ruling Shiite-dominated political class and against Iran’s influence over Iran.
Sudani came to power after a strained period between the factions and PM Kadhimi’s government. The Coordination Framework was supposed to restore political and government influence in Iraq after its rival, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, quit political life in June 2022.
The Framework was formed on October 11, 2021 to coordinate political work. It later transformed into a coalition that worked on preventing Sadr from forming a government with his Sunni and Kurdish allies.
The Framework did not take part in that alliance, while still vying for state positions, such as the national security agency and intelligence agency. The Framework leaders were very ambitious. They not only sought to end the 2019 protest movement, overcome Sadr and reclaim the state, but they also wanted to be the sole rulers, said a Sunni leader who was part of government formation efforts in 2022.
In other words, the government that Sudani would come to lead was not designed to serve his agenda, but to empower the Framework, with the Iranians being at the heart of this process.
Sudani tried to find room to maneuver in a wider space that was effectively controlled by the Framework.
Three MPs described Sudani as an organized administrative figure. He represented Shiites who separate their ideology from state work. Ultimately, he is viewed as a politician who is running a house that he doesn’t really own.
‘Special Iranian operation’
A former government official, who was in office between 2016 and 2019, said the formation of the cabinet was complicated despite the Framework’s optimism. Iran had set many goals: It wanted many positions and sought the withdrawal of American forces in a way that would not harm Shiite control over Iraq. It wanted to end the protest movement, seize complete control of institutions and change the rules of the game with the Kurds.
Effectively, “we were at an advanced stage of Iran’s influence in Iraq. Iran’s plans in Iraq were being discussed in the open. I later learned that the Iranians were demanding a ‘special operation’ that was launched when Sudani came to power,” he added.
Months after taking office, Sudani started to learn up close how delicate balances of power were maintained.
In January 2015, US national security coordinator Brett McGurk was in Baghdad for routine talks with the PM as part of the strategic agreement between the countries.
Less than a week later, media affiliated with Shiite parties reported that Iranian Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani was in Baghdad and that he too had met with Sudani.
At the time, leading members of the Framework, such as Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr organization, was leading a campaign to pressure the government to press for the withdrawal of American troops.
Shiite forces revealed at the time that the government had reached a settlement with its allies on the need to reach a truce with the factions if they wanted to negotiate the withdrawal.
The truce itself was reached with the approval of the Coordination Framework and Iran, revealed a member of the State Administration coalition, which in turn showed the contradictions within the Shiite parties which were rooted in the struggle for power.
The bulletproof vest
On November 5, the 30th day of the Gaza war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Baghdad at night. The lasting image of that visit was the bulletproof vest that he wore and how he flew from Baghdad airport to the US embassy onboard a combat helicopter.
At the Iraqi government, state media officials said the US State Department designed this “scene” to increase pressure on Baghdad. The Americans showed that Iraq was no longer trustworthy, said a source who attended government discussions that night.
In contrast, when Shiite threats reached their peak, American officials used to move around Iraq in a completely different manner. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the country in March 2023. He landed in broad daylight, dressed in civilian attire and shook the hands of the welcoming officers.
Sudani tried to explain to Blinken the situation on the ground: Baghdad could not tolerate the pressure. It could not appease both the Americans and the Iranians because it will be the loser in the end, said three MPs close to the PM.
According to government sources, Blinken interpreted the Iraqi tone as “desperate” and that officials were incapable of taking greater steps to deter the factions.
Sudani played the usual role adopted by governments that came to power after 2003: “He kept the door open to Washington, while Tehran continued to consolidate its position at home,” said the government official.
However, the developments in Gaza demonstrated the difficulty in maintaining this tricky balance.
Exchanging roles towards the abyss
The government official said: “The Iranian plan put in place after October 7 called for the armed factions to freely carry out attacks against the American forces. Meanwhile, the powers that formed the government would ease the pressure piled on the Americans as a result of these strikes for as long as possible.”
This approach did not defuse the divisions between the Shiite factions, which have shown a fierceness on the ground and brusque political approach aimed at gaining Iran’s favor, while also attempting to reap gains from the Iraqi government.
MP Sajjad Salem stressed that the majority of the “resistance” operations have nothing to do with the developments in Gaza. He explained that the factions are “extorting the Shiite partners and government for political gains.”
Take for instance, the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose leader Qais Khazali is carrying out political roles to protect the government by getting rid of the “armed militia” label.
Khazali oversees the “media of the resistance”, said trusted sources that have known him since 2015. They revealed that the majority of the leaks that claim to uncover the behind-the-scenes details of the armed factions are actually being released by him to test the political waters.
He has also played a role in silencing opponents of Iran’s influence.
The Iranians view him as very politically ambitious and that he quickly learned how to maneuver and manipulate the public opinion. They believe that it is useful to have someone like him to “modernize the Shiite house and make it more dynamic,” said the former government official.
Khazali is the “only cornerstone” in the strategy of “changing roles” that Iran has adopted. He suspected that the factions on the ground are “irritated by the political favor he enjoys.”
Iran has set a long-term plan for Iraq, but it is stumbling at the details, such as the disputes among the factions, said the official.
On the 39th day of the Gaza war, the US carried out a missile strike against the al-Nujaba movement headquarters in Baghdad. It killed a leading member of the group who was running field operations in Syria.
That day, the Americans opened a direct confrontation with the factions, dropping the delicate rules of engagement that placed weight on the partnership with the Sudani government.
On the ground, the armed factions soon changed their positions as a precaution from more American attacks.
The government was meanwhile losing the initiative with all parties. It could not take the initiative from them, and it could not withstand the pressure from the Americans.
The former government official said the heads of Shiite factions and the Iranians discussed the possibility of coming up with a scapegoat to rein in the Americans. The suggestion was rejected and raised fear among Shiite leaders about their political future and future of the government.
The former government official said the Iranians are determined to continue to put pressure on the Americans. Perhaps they want to hold negotiations with them but under certain conditions.
New deal or another collapse
The “changing of roles” is an approach that Shiite factions cannot adopt or excel at, said Akeel Abbas, an Iraqi academic. Such a position cannot be adopted in such strained times, he added, noting that the Al-Aqsa Flood exposed the fragility of the Coordination Framework.
The Sudani government did not have the means to control the conflict between the Americans and the armed factions. Now, it is at a loss and has to deal with parties that have stood back and remained silent and militias that have sought escalation.
Some see an opportunity in the escalation. Selin Uysal, a former Iraq desk officer at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it was now possible for the US to ease the pressure and introduce new rules to the game because the current active dynamism could lead to unintentional results.
The Americans are taking a risk by quickly using up the room they have to maneuver, while the regional tensions are expected to remain high for several weeks, if not months, to come, she added.
Having a government that is close to Iran – like the one in Baghdad - may be a favorable element during this escalation because this gives Washington a channel of communication to defuse the tensions on the ground, she explained.
An innovative solution is necessary to preserve all parties’ security interests, such as an organized transitional negotiated process over the future of the international coalition. This would give the government and the factions greater room to rein in the more extreme militias, which are not only acting at Iran’s orders but also seeking political gain, she said.
Something of the scapegoat scenario can be implemented here, she suggested.