The US killed the militia's commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis along with the most influential Iranian commander Qasem Solaimani following militia's siege of the US consulate in Baghdad.
In Iraq, supporters of Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and other Shiite militias besieged the US Embassy on the last day of 2019, amidst three months of protests against the government and Tehran’s influence in the country.
In response, the US killed the group's commander along General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC's) Quds Force, who was described as the most powerful general in the Middle East.
Who is Kataib Hezbollah?
Kataib Hezbollah is a Shiite militia group operating under Hashd al Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Iraq’s umbrella group including more than 40 predominantly Shiite militia groups. It is led by US-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. It has 400 active members in Iraq but controls around 10,000 fighters overall in Iraq and Syria, with an estimated 7,500 of them assigned to Iraqi operations, according to the Washington Institute. The rest is appointed to support the Syrian regime.
KH was officially founded in 2007, long before PMF was created to fight against Daesh in 2014 but its leaders have been carrying out anti-US and anti-Sunni activities since 1980. Washington declared the group as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2009 after claims that it had carried out attacks against the US since 2007.
According to a report by Amnesty International, the group is accused of involvement in extrajudicial killings and abductions in Iraq’s Anbar in 2016 and kidnapping of more than 70 Sunni men and boys in al Sijir, and killing 49 in Saqlawiyah.
The PMF played a critical role in the territorial defeat of Daesh, after it was founded as a response to the call by the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani to pick up arms against the group.
The group is largely funded and commanded by Iran – which is predominantly Shia.
The Tehran government and Revolutionary Guards have been influential in Baghdad for the past 10 years, since the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. Iraq's prime ministers have had close ties with Iran ever since. Hashd al Shaabi is only another sign of that influence.
Iraq's parliament passed legislation legitimising the PMF as an independent organisation within the Iraqi army in 2016.
In 2019, the Iraq government ordered the full integration of the PMF groups into the Iraqi army -- a move viewed as aimed at addressing Washington's concerns over the militia.
How did the embassy siege come about?
In Baghdad, the embassies are located in a heavily fortified area called the Green Zone, which is accessible to civilians only with a special permit. The militia-supporting crowd, however, managed to enter the area, with vehicle plates spotted being belonged to the government.
While media largely named the supporters who besieged the consulate as “protesters", the Iraqis who have been attending the popular revolt in the country since October 1 are a separate group and reject calling the crown in the green zone anything but militia supporters or militias themselves. The militia supporters retreated and began camping outside the fortified area on January 1, after the militia issued a statement ordering the move.
The tension between the US and Iran strained on December 28, as a US civilian contractor at an Iraqi military base in oil city Kirkuk, killed in an attack. Washington put the blame on Iran, saying that the Tehran-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah is behind the attack.
In response, US airstrikes targeted Kataib Hezbollah locations in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 militiamen.
Angered by the airstrikes, Shiite militiamen and their supporters managed to march to the Green Zone and broke into the US embassy -- a sign widely perceived as the government’s green light to the militia. Iraqi security forces made no apparent effort to stop the militias and the supporters' march but also did not ask the US to withdraw from Iraq, as the PMF demands. After the attack on its consulate, the US announced an immediate additional deployment of about 750 soldiers to the Middle East.
The US and Iran’s tense relations became increasingly visible after the defeat of Daesh in the country. Becoming the backbone of the Iraqi army’s fight against Daesh, the Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabi, increasingly became influential in Iraqi affairs. Despite US objections, the PMF gradually fully integrated into the Iraqi army -- a move that came after the former commander of the militia group participated in the elections in 2018.
Resentful to the increasing Iranian influence, which many Iraqis blame for the country’s problems such as corruption and a lack of services, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on October 1. More than 500 Iraqi protesters were killed by Iraqi security forces and the unknown gunmen that the Iraqis in revolt accuse of being militias.