A Feb. 16 rocket attack near the American Embassy in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad has brought renewed attention to threats by an Iran-backed paramilitary group called Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. The militants have vowed to avenge America’s January 3 killing of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.
Several rockets fell near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on February 16, causing multiple loud explosions and spreading fear in the area. Although there was no immediate claim of responsible for the attack, it focused analysts on the threats from Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi paramilitary group loyal to and backed by Iran, to take revenge for Soleimani’s killing.
Turning Point: the Assassination of Soleimani
Soleimani —Iran’s most influential military commander — was killed by a U.S. drone as his motorcade left Baghdad International Airport. His killing was a small detail in the larger picture of the ongoing showdown between the U.S., on one hand, and Iran, on the other.
The U.S. said it killed him because he killed American citizens in the Iraq War. Nevertheless, Soleimani’s killing pushed the region to the brink, given Iran’s pledge to make the U.S. pay for it. Iranian threats are taken seriously across the region for the simple reason that Tehran can easily turn these threats into action by giving orders to its allied militias to wreak havoc.
Iran-backed militias are present in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. A little less than 20 attacks have been staged on or near American troop concentrations in different parts of Iraq since Soleimani’s killing. Dozens of U.S. troops were injured in these attacks with many more reportedly having suffered traumatic brain injuries, and Iran says they are only the beginning of its ongoing retaliation against the U.S.
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba: the Little Known Group Threatening the US
The U.S. currently has about 5,200 troops in different parts of Iraq, including in the Ayn al-Asad Military Base in the western Iraqi province of al-Anbar. These troops will apparently turn into targets for Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba in the coming period, with the group stepping up its threats against the U.S., following Soleimani’s killing.
On February 15, Nasr al-Shamri, the deputy commander of the militia and its spokesman, posted a photo of an American armored vehicle outside Ayn al-Asad base, with some U.S. troops inside it.
Under the photo he wrote: “We are far closer than you can imagine”.
On the same day, al-Shamri said his militia had started the countdown for responding to what he described as “American occupation troops”.
“This is an Iraqi decision par excellence,” al-Shamri wrote on Twitter. “We will not accept any request for delaying this response.”
From Humble Origins to a Fearsome Force
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba was founded by Akram al-Kaabi – who is still the commander of the paramilitary group – in 2013. While it receives financial support from the Iraqi government, this militia does not get its orders from Baghdad, but from Tehran.
In March, 2019, the U.S. Department of State designated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba a “terrorist” organization to tighten the noose around its financing. It accused the group of carrying out an Iranian agenda and of having loyalty to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Al-Kaabi previously served in the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary group loyal to Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. He plotted a series of attacks against the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
In 2005, Iran tasked the Lebanese Hezbollah movement with forming a paramilitary group in Iraq with the aim of fighting American troops. Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, ordered some of his officers to train the new group. This gave rise to the League of the Righteousness militia. Al-Kaabi became the commander of this militia in 2007.
Iran directly bankrolls Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. According to some reports, Tehran pays each member of the militia $1,500 every month. In 2017, the militia formed the Golan Battalion with the aim of capturing the Syrian Golan Heights from Israel.
Al-Kaabi and his militia are also instrumental in backing Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad and have contributed to suppressing the ongoing demonstrations in Iraq. Over 500 Iraqis have been killed in the crackdown on the demonstrations – including by Iranian snipers – so far.