It’s possible that the most important strategic event of 2020 in the Middle East occurred a few days before the year even began. The United States attacked the pro-Iranian Shi’ite Kataib Hezbollah militia early Sunday morning. American drones hit five targets of the militia in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
A Pentagon spokesman said 25 militia members were killed. It was a massive attack, and one of the largest by the United States in the region in the past year. The question that interests most of the actors operating in the region at the moment – including, and maybe especially Israel – is whether the attack points to a change in U.S. policy.
– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 55
Listen: Under Trump, haters don’t need an excuse to attack Jews. Ep. 55
Kataib Hezbollah is one of the most important pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq. The group accepts the religious legal authority of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the principle of “Velayat-e Faqih,” the supreme rule of the Islamic jurist. This is the guiding principle of the Iranian political system, according to which the political ruler is also the senior religious leader. The militia’s political ideology is expressed in its extreme opposition to the United States, the West in general, and Israel.
The militia is under the auspices of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Force, under the command of general Qassem Soleimani, whose men direct the militia’s soldiers, as well as training and arming them. No precise figures exist on the militia’s manpower, but according to intelligence assessments from Israel and Western countries, the group’s soldiers and support personnel numbered a few thousand in the past – and in recent years its strength has grown to 25,000 people.
The United States has a long and bloody history with Kataib Hezbollah. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush in 2003, Kataib Hezbollah fighters adopted guerilla hit-and-run tactics. They fired rockets, most of them improvised, against U.S. troops and specialized in setting improvised explosive devices and mines. They were trained to do so by Soleimani’s subordinates, adopting the methods of Hezbollah in its fighting against the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon. The Pentagon and State Department estimate that the militia was responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. troops during the war in Iraq from 2003 through 2011.
A member of Hashd al-Shaabi holds a flag of the Kataib Hezbollah militia group during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq on December 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
With the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Kataib Hezbollah transferred most of its efforts to Syria and focused on aiding the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the fight against ISIS and other opposition groups.
The militia is led by 65-year-old Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, who was born in Basra in southern Iraq and is an engineer by training, and who is also known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (“The Engineer”). The Western intelligence community attributes to him direct involvement – at the orders of the al-Quds Force – in the terror attacks against the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. In response, he fled to Iran, married an Iranian woman and received Iranian citizenship. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Kuwait. On Tuesday, al-Muhandis’ militia led the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes.