Pro-Iranian paramilitary groups are upping their threats against the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq after months of rocket and bomb attacks targeting U.S. forces. The escalating campaign threatens one of the few remaining partners that Washington has in Iraq, as Iran and its allies in Iraq push to remove U.S. forces. With the U.S. election nearing, Iran appears to be gambling that the U.S. would react harshly to attacks on U.S. forces but would not be as focused on the Kurdish region, where U.S. forces are based.
On Oct. 17, protesters in Baghdad attacked the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest Kurdish political party in Iraq. The protesters were linked to the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a large group of mostly Shiite militias that tend to be pro-Iranian. The U.S. has blamed these groups for attacks over the past 18 months that killed American and anti-ISIS coalition personnel.
To understand how we got here, a bit of history is necessary. Iraq is a deeply divided country. After the U.S. removed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, elections brought to power parties that were rooted in the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities. A 2005 constitution gave the Kurdish region tremendous amounts of autonomy, including their own armed forces, the Peshmerga. However, insurgency and civil strife were common, much of it centered around Sunni extremists, such as the groups that coalesced around ISIS in 2014 and pro-Iranian groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah that formed the backbone of the PMU.
Three years ago, after ISIS was largely defeated in Iraq, the Kurds held an independence referendum. In response, Baghdad sent tanks into the contested city of Kirkuk, ejecting the Peshmerga. At the time, the Kurds warned that the PMU was gaining in power and that its sectarian militias were invading Kirkuk, Sinjar and areas around Mosul, replacing the ISIS extremists with new extremists linked to Iran.
Evidence emerged over the past few years of how these pro-Iranian militias set up checkpoints and bases across Iraq, becoming a kind of state-within-a-state. They became even more powerful through receipt of government salaries as an official government paramilitary force. They also became increasingly hostile to the U.S., blaming America and Israel for attacks on their bases in the summer of 2019. Leaders of the militias, such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri, demanded that the U.S. leave Iraq. Rocket attacks on U.S. bases followed and Washington retaliated against these groups — ultimately killing Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, in January 2020.
This is the context of today’s crisis in Iraq. In September, after the U.S. consolidated its remaining 3,000 personnel in Iraq at al-Asad Air Base, Baghdad and facilities in the Kurdistan region, Washington threatened Iraq that it would close its Baghdad embassy if the rocket attacks continued. This spooked the pro-Iranian groups, who had heard rumors of a U.S list of 80 sites it might target if more rockets fell on U.S. facilities. The attacks stopped.
However, on Sept. 30, BM-21 Grad rockets were fired from near Mosul at Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, falling near a U.S. facility at Erbil International Airport. Two weeks later, the Kurdish KDP party office was attacked in Baghdad. The message is clear: If attacks against U.S. facilities in other parts of Iraq are reduced, the militias will target America’s Kurdish allies. The goal is the same: to get the U.S. to leave Iraq and enable Iranian allies to control Baghdad.
What can Washington do? The Trump administration’s attempt to deter further attacks, using airstrikes and threats, has worked only to a degree. The pro-Iranian groups appear to fear that President Trump will react harshly if U.S. forces are harmed. They also know that Trump has said he wants to end “endless” wars in “faraway places.” So they attack the Kurds, to chip away at U.S. allies and partners. It is essential that Washington continue to invest in the Kurdistan region’s security.
In mid-September, the U.S. transferred Humvees and ammunition to the Kurdish Peshmerga. The rocket attack on Sept. 30 sent a message that the militias can threaten Erbil’s airport. Pressure has resulted in the PMU 30th Brigade, which controls the area from which the rockets were fired, being asked to move back, out of range of Erbil. This is important; the U.S. must keep up the pressure, and share intelligence and security coordination with the Kurdish forces, to enable Erbil to be a strong ally in the region.
If Washington continues to draw down forces in other parts of Iraq, it can anchor its role in Syria and Iraq via Erbil while working with other allies such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Greece to advance U.S. interests without putting American forces at risk.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.