Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani condemned the three U.S. airstrikes that targeted Iranian-backed Hezbollah Brigades facilities on Dec. 26 and described the U.S. actions as “a clear hostile act.” Sudani also denounced militia attacks on U.S. forces, and even though he technically controls those militias, he is powerless to stop them.
Sudani issued a rebuke of U.S. military action on Iraqi soil and claimed that the attacks hit “Iraqi military sites,” killing one Iraqi soldier.
“[T]he Iraqi government condemns what transpired early this morning, Tuesday, December 26, 2023, during which Iraqi military sites were targeted by the American side justifying the act as a response,” the Office of Prime Minister statement said. “This resulted in the martyrdom of one service member and the injury of 18 others, including civilians.”
“This constitutes a clear hostile act,” the statement continued. “It runs counter to the pursuit of enduring mutual interests in establishing security and stability, and it opposes the declared intention of the American side to enhance relations with Iraq.”
Sudani’s claims that an Iraqi soldier was killed and Iraqi military facilities were struck do not contradict Hezbollah Brigade’s claim that one of its fighters was killed and U.S. claims that Hezbollah Brigades facilities were targeted in the U.S. airstrikes. Hezbollah Brigades, one of the most effective Iranian proxy Shia militias in Iraq, is also part of the Popular Mobilization Forces – which is an official branch of the Iraqi security forces that reports directly to the Iraqi Prime Minister. All of the influential and powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias, such as Asaib Ahl al Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba, the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and the Imam Ali Brigades are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces and their facilities and fighters are technically part of the Iraqi military.
Iraq’s Prime Minister did describe the militia attacks on U.S. forces “as hostile acts” that “infringe upon Iraq’s sovereignty and are deemed unacceptable under any circumstances or justification.”
Sudani’s denouncement of both the militias and the U.S. response to attacks on its bases highlights the dilemma he faces. As Prime Minister, the militias technically report to him, and he theoretically should be able to order a halt to their attacks. If his orders are disobeyed, he can disarm and disband the militias, and imprison key commanders.
However, the Iranian proxy militias are powerful political and military entities within Iraq, and have proven that they are far more loyal to Iran and its Supreme Leader than to their own Prime Minister. Akram ‘Abbas al Kaabi, the leader of Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba and a U.S. listed Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization, openly stated in 2015 that he would and could overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Kaabi also said that he and his group take political and religious guidance from Khamenei.
Iranian military leaders have admitted to their role in fostering and nurturing the militias as part of its plan to elevate them to power within Iraq. In 2016, a senior adviser to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force admitted that the Popular Mobilization Forces as part of its efforts to extend its influence in the country and create an Iraqi version of the IRGC. [Also see FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Iraq’s prime minister establishes Popular Mobilization Forces as a permanent ‘independent military formation’ and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces in Iran’s game plan.]
Sudani’s inability to curb the militia attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq also puts the U.S. government and military in a precarious position. An estimated 2,500 U.S. troops remain at multiple bases training and advising Iraqi troops. U.S. troops are spread thin and rely on local Iraqi security forces for protection. The militias, whose troops numbering in the hundreds of thousands and possess military equipment that includes armored vehicles, tanks, and artillery, could organize to overrun a base. U.S. attempts at deterrence have failed thus far, and at some point, Iran and its proxies may decide it is time to do so.