Iran's Proxies Accelerate Soleimani's Campaign to Compel U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq
Key Takeaway: Iran continues to escalate proxy attacks against the U.S. in Iraq, demonstrating that it remains undeterred despite the January 3 strike that killed IRGC - Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and key Iraqi proxy leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis and subsequent U.S. strikes. Iran’s proxy network in Iraq is advancing its campaign to compel an American withdrawal by increasing the operational tempo of its attacks on U.S. and allied personnel. Iran’s proxies are responsible for at least 15 attacks on American and U.S.-led Coalition personnel since January 3. A new militia group, Usbat al-Thairen, claimed several recent attacks, indicating that the proxy network may be reorganizing in observance of the shared vision of Soleimani and Muhandis and that Iran may have reached a new phase in its campaign to expel U.S. forces form Iraq.
Iran launched an effort to align and reorganize its Iraqi proxies after the U.S. strike that killed IRGC – Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and de-facto Iraqi proxy leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis on January 3. Iran’s proxy network convened a series of meetings to overcome internal and intra-militia divisions to establish a more unified resistance movement opposing the continued U.S. presence in Iraq. Meeting participants began referring to that effort with variations on the name “Iraqi Resistance Front.” The so-called “Iraqi Resistance Front” is likely an informal alliance between Iran’s usually fractious Iraqi proxies rather than a formal organization, and its existence does not end the deep-seated rivalries between many proxy militia groups and officials. Nonetheless, the efforts of that informal alliance were initially successful and allowed Iran’s proxies in Iraq to work with their usual political and military rival, Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sar. On January 5, Sadr and the proxies passed a non-binding, exclusively Shi’a-backed resolution asking the Iraqi government to expel all foreign forces. The proxies also received support from Sadr to organize a 250,000-person anti-U.S. march in Baghdad on January 24 and to suppress Iraq’s ongoing popular protest movement which, in part, opposed Iran’s Iraqi proxy network. The efforts of the “Iraqi Resistance Front” increased political pressure on the U.S. in Iraq and refocused the political wings of Iran’s political proxies on that objective.
Iran’s militia proxies in Iraq, meanwhile, are responsible for at least 15 rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. and U.S.-led Coalition personnel since January 3. These attacks are becoming more aggressive, but are inconsistent in frequency and scale. Two recent attacks on Camp Taji used over 30 rockets each, but most such attacks employ fewer than five rockets. A third attack that same week used just two. The proxy network is demonstrating that it is prepared to periodically increase the scale of rocket and mortar attacks and that it is willing to cause U.S. and Coalition casualties.
The 15 proxy attacks following Soleimani’s death have invalidated the assumptions of the White House, which intended the strike that killed Soleimani “to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Quds Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks, and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks.” Instead, Soleimani’s death demonstrably failed to deter or significantly disrupt the ability of Iran’s proxies to conduct attacks in Iraq.
Figure 1: This updated ISW-CTP graphic demonstrates the escalating proxy attacks on U.S. and Coalition personnel in Iraq since the January 3 U.S. strike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. Iran’s proxies never halted their military campaign to compel the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
The Iran-backed “Iraqi Resistance Front” has politically and militarily advanced its campaign to compel an American withdrawal since the “million-man” march. The increase in the scale and frequency of its attacks marks the advancement of Iran’s proxy campaign in Iraq. While Soleimani was alive, the tempo and size of proxy attacks were carefully factored in to Iran’s broader regional strategy. Escalations and de-escalations were part of an orchestrated, phased campaign intended to achieve Iran’s strategic objectives, including sanctions relief and the ouster of the U.S. from Iraq and the broader Middle East. For example, Iran directed its major Iraqi militia leaders to simultaneously attack the U.S. Embassy in Iraq under the guise of a protest on December 31, 2019. That attack was carefully orchestrated to demonstrate U.S. vulnerabilities and encourage a U.S. withdrawal. The proxy network has proven that it will hold fast to its pattern of gradual escalation in keeping with Soleimani’s premortem plans.
The proxy network has also achieved several political and rhetorical wins. In February, it navigated an entire round of failed government formation without any inter-militia violence, even as its consensus around the candidacy of Prime Minister (PM)-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi disintegrated. In early March, proxy leader Hadi al-Ameri organized parliamentary resistance to the PM candidacy of Adnan al-Zurfi, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen. Zurfi will likely be unable to pass through the proxy firewall blocking his government formation. And in mid-March, the proxy network revealed its latest rhetorical device in the form of an ostensibly new Shi’a militia group, Usbat al-Thairen.
The “new” Shi’a militia group, Usbat al-Thairen, is likely under the direct control of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the proxy network. On March 15 and 17, a new Shi’a militia group calling itself Usbat al-Thairen, the League of Revolutionaries, claimed responsibility for three rocket attacks on U.S.-led Coalition forces at Camp Taji and Besmaya Base on March 11, 14, and 16. March 11, the day this round of attacks began, was Soleimani’s birthday – now a symbolically significant date. The creation of this group indicates that Iran’s proxies have moved forward with implementing Soleimani’s strategy in Iraq. In an October 2019 meeting, Soleimani reportedly ordered Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis to form and direct a new Shi’a militia group to conduct rocket attacks on Americans in Iraq. Qais al-Khazali, another leader in the “Iraqi Resistance Front,” vowed that the proxy network would take revenge for the death of Muhandis “equal” to the revenge of Iran for Soleimani. Usbat al-Thairen announced its existence on March 15, a deadline previously set by Kata’ib Hezbollah for Iraqis to cease all cooperation with the U.S. and U.S.-led Coalition forces or face unspecified consequences. The U.S. has already specifically identified Kata’ib Hezbollah as responsible for the March 11 attack for which Usbat al-Thairen claimed sole responsibility. The targets and means of the claimed attacks are consistent with those used by both KH and the broader proxy network. Most transparently, the imagery, rhetoric, and name of Usbat al-Thairen all directly reference Iran’s broader Axis of Resistance.
It remains to be seen whether Usbat al-Thairen is merely a thin veneer for the activities of Kata’ib Hezbollah, or is in fact the result of coordinated action by some elements of the “Iraqi Resistance Front” that the proxy network began organizing following Soleimani’s death. Regardless, Usbat al-Thairen has already demonstrated the type of advanced attack capabilities that U.S. officials have typically associated with Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Using a new name for the same proxy activities offers Iran greater plausible deniability in unclassified settings. The Pentagon and State Department have repeatedly stated that the U.S. will hold Iran accountable for proxy actions. However, anonymous American officials told the New York Times that there was “no firm evidence” that Iran directly ordered the attacks claimed by Usbat al-Thairen. Classified intelligence may easily link attacks on U.S. forces to groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah, but claims by other groups muddy the waters of public accountability. The U.S. may find it increasingly difficult to justify retaliatory strikes, especially on Iranian assets, when the attacks themselves are claimed by unknown or non-Iranian actors. The U.S. would then face a difficult choice on the world stage: declassify intelligence, potentially risking assets, or take unilateral action, thereby risking a loss of support from its European allies or others who may be dissuaded from holding Iran accountable for its proxy activities.
Iran and its proxies likely intend to bait the U.S. into a harsh kinetic response in Iraq that could alienate Iraqis who currently oppose Iran’s effort to expel the U.S. The proxies have already been somewhat successful in this regard; the U.S. retaliation for the March 11 attack on Camp Taji killed not only Kata’ib Hezbollah militants, but also non-militia members of the Iraqi Security Forces: three soldiers in the 19th Iraqi Army Division and two soldiers in the 3rd Babil Emergency Police Regiment. In a press release, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said that such strikes are not part of a partnership and do not respect the sovereignty of Iraq. Iraq’s political class seeks to contain the fallout from repeated Iranian escalations inside Iraq. Iraqi politicians could conclude that the easiest mechanism to contain that fallout is to compel the withdrawal of U.S. forces rather than to curtail the proxy militias and establish a government monopoly on use of force inside of Iraq. Some Iraqis will likely perceive more aggressive U.S. kinetic action against the proxies in Iraq to be further violations of Iraqi sovereignty. Further U.S. retaliation to attacks could incentivize the next Iraqi PM to accede to the January 5 parliamentary request, using his authority to end the executive agreement that allows U.S. and Coalition troops to remain in Iraq.
However, it is far from given that Iran will succeed. Many Iraqi politicians fortunately recognize that a continued U.S. presence in the country is necessary to contain ISIS, strengthen the Iraqi Security Forces, and attract international investment. The support of those politicians, particularly members of Kurdish and some Sunni blocs, will continue to obstruct Iranian-proxy efforts to convince the Iraqi government to expel U.S. and Coalition forces. Iran’s Iraqi proxies may content themselves with an indefinite extension of the term of current Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, who resigned in November 2019 but has remained in power and delegated much of his responsibility to his cabinet. Mehdi has proven to be an acceptable actor for Iran; he can work with Tehran and with Washington without applying too much pressure to Iran’s Iraqi shadow state.
In preparation for further escalation, the U.S. began to increase its force protection measures in Iraq in early March through troop consolidations and the deployment of missile defense systems. The U.S. deployed Patriot surface-to-air missile defense systems to Erbil and Ain al-Assad bases the week of March 30 after announcing plans to do so on March 10.  They are likely accompanied by counter rocket, artillery, and mortar systems (C-RAMs). The operational-level headquarters for the counter-ISIS fight, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), also withdrew American forces from three smaller bases in what the Department of Defense described as a “long-planned adjustment” of force posture on March 19. CJTF-OIR credits this withdrawal to the success of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in combatting ISIS and added that it is also a precautionary effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. CJTF-OIR Spokesperson Col. Myles B. Caggins III stated that “we will see [the U.S.-ISF] partnership in the future from fewer locations and with fewer people, but our commitment remains the same.” This consolidation of U.S. and Coalition forces to better-defended, larger bases reduces the risk to U.S. forces. It may also provide the force protection necessary for the U.S. to conduct more severe retaliatory strikes on proxy groups at acceptable levels of risk.
Iran’s proxies are claiming the U.S. troop consolidation as a victory. A spokesperson for KH immediately declared that the U.S. withdrawal from the first base, al-Qaim on the Iraqi-Syrian border, was a “humiliating escape” and “the beginning of defeat” for the U.S. in Iraq. Askari called on KH fighters to prepare for “strategic operations if the enemy insists on its occupation and violation of sovereignty.” Askari instructed KH fighters to continue targeting Americans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S., including “logistical support companies and security companies that are working to serve the enemy.” The leader of Iranian proxy militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada congratulated Iraqi security forces, the Popular Mobilization forces, and the Iraqi people for achieving the withdrawal of U.S. forces and threatened to renew attacks on U.S. personnel if the American “occupation” of Iraq continues. Meanwhile, the deputy secretary general of Iranian proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq attributed the U.S. withdrawal to the actions of the “Islamic Resistance,” another name for the “Iraqi Resistance Front” effort.
The U.S. is also adding economic pressure in an effort to block Iran’s political plays and deter further escalation. On March 26, the U.S. issued a 30-day waiver to allow Iraq to continue importing Iranian energy, thereby circumventing the maximum pressure campaign of U.S. sanctions against Iran. The U.S. also sanctioned 20 people and entities of various national origins taking advantage of exemptions to funnel money to the IRGC. The timeframe for this waiver is the shortest ever issued to Iraq and will expire on April 26, ten days after the constitutionally mandated deadline for PM-designate Zurfi to form a government. The waiver deadline provides leverage to the United States. Its short window warns Iran and its proxies to not sabotage the government formation process or risk significant financial losses. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, need to demonstrate progress toward energy independence. The combination of U.S.-imposed sanctions, critically low oil prices, and COVID-19-induced productivity shocks are wiping out Iraq's economy; the renewal of the energy sanctions waiver is necessary for Iraq to forestall its looming fiscal cliff. However, this point of leverage may not be enough to deter proxy violence around other important dates within this time frame.
U.S. and Coalition personnel should prepare for escalating and increasingly lethal attacks. Rhetorically, Iran’s proxies will continue to frame the ongoing, pre-planned consolidation of U.S. forces within Iraq as a victory in their campaign to expel U.S. forces. They will continue to frame themselves as the heroes of the counter-ISIS campaign, and they will inaccurately frame the U.S. as a colonizing force interested only in exploiting Iraqi resources. They will build on each of these narratives to further empower the Popular Mobilization Forces and, by extension, to further consolidate the role of the proxy network in the Iraqi state. The means by which Iran and its proxies hope to achieve their operational objective, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, may have changed, but the objective itself has not.
Iran’s proxy militias may adapt their attack targets and types. The establishment of Usbat al-Thairen is one indicator that the Iranian proxy network may have reached a new phase in its campaign to chip away at American resolve to remain in Iraq. Based on the group’s first three claimed attacks, this new phase may be marked by a periodic but accelerating and increasingly lethal series of attacks on U.S. and Coalition personnel. The Iranian proxy network could detonate explosive devices against logistic convoys for multinational corporations and convoys of U.S. or partnered forces. Likely proxy militants likely already targeted one U.S. supply convoy with a small explosive on February 10. Proxies could also kidnap or physically harass contractors, domestic workers for foreign companies, or military personnel and partnered forces. Most dangerously, Iran’s proxies could begin to use the short-range ballistic missiles smuggled into Iraq in recent years to strike U.S. and Coalition forces or U.S. allies in the region. The Patriot anti-missile systems that can defend from such an attack currently cover only two U.S. positions, leaving other bases, the Embassy in Baghdad, the consulate in Erbil, and regional allies vulnerable. The launching of these short-range missiles remains unlikely but would constitute a major escalation by Iran.
The U.S. is considering more-aggressive strikes on militia targets. Those strikes are unlikely to achieve their desired effect and may play into Iran’s hands. Recent reports indicate that the Pentagon began drafting plans for a large-scale campaign to “destroy” KH on March 15. The U.S. would need to conduct nearly simultaneous strikes on the group’s leadership, key weapons facilities, and bases to degrade KH’s capabilities. Such an escalation by the U.S. may trigger non-KH proxies to increase their own attacks on U.S. and Coalition forces. Major military escalation against KH could force Iraqis to choose between the country’s two closest allies. The U.S. has already made clear its intentions to leave Iraq, while Iraqis understand that Iran will always be their international neighbor indefinitely. If forced to choose between U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq, many Iraqis would, by necessity, choose Iran.
Iran’s proxy network is preparing for large-scale clashes with U.S. forces. These preparations include training exercises and rhetorical condition setting so that any action Iran or its proxies takes against the U.S. can be justified as a necessary action undertaken to prevent a U.S.-directed conspiracy. Iranian actors contributed to setting those conditions when, on March 22, an anonymous Quds Force commander told Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida that the U.S. is plotting a military coup in Iraq. On March 25, Kata’ib Hezbollah announced that the U.S. was planning an airborne assault on KH and PMF forces. On March 26, KH announced that it had conducted a live-fire tactical exercise in Jurf al-Nasr (formerly known as Jurf al-Sakhar), 60 km southwest of Baghdad to practice repelling U.S. air drops on KH positions. A KH spokesperson claimed that “thousands” participated in the exercises, which simulated urban warfare as well as ground and air assaults. This exercise was likely timed to coincide with the planned U.S. drawdowns from smaller bases. It allows KH to demonstrate its supposed invulnerability while providing valuable training to its forces.
These attacks and the pre-planned American troop consolidations have long-term implications for the Coalition’s counter-ISIS fight. ISIS will benefit from the decreased U.S. pressure as the group works to reconstitute itself. U.S. assets may be directed away from the counter-ISIS fight as the U.S. concentrates on defending itself from and deterring Iranian proxy aggression. Increased global perceptions of U.S. aggression could also drive away European partners and other members of the U.S.-led Anti-ISIS Coalition, threatening the hard-fought gains made by U.S. and Coalition forces since they returned to Iraq in 2014.
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