Armed group in Iraq demands U.S. forces withdraw by end of 2021, threatens violence

The Iraqi Supreme Court on Monday ratified the parliamentary election results, clearing the path for the forming of a government. Kataib Hezbollah, one of the groups that disputed the election results, wants all U.S. military forces out of Iraq by the end of 2021. It is believed to be responsible for previous attacks on American forces. NewsHour special correspondent Simona Foltyn reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Iraqi Supreme Court ratified yesterday the results of the parliamentary elections which took place last October.

    One of the groups that disputed the election results is Kataib Hezbollah, a paramilitary organization which, alongside other Iran-backed groups, wants all U.S. military forces out of Iraq by the end of the year. Kataib Hezbollah is believed to be responsible for previous rocket and drone attacks on American forces, and is threatening to once again step up those operations should their demands for full withdrawal not be met.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Simona Foltyn gained exclusive access to Kataib Hezbollah's bases near Iraq's border with Syria.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    This is the United States' principal adversary in Iraq, Brigade 46 of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces. But it's better known as Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful, secretive armed group with close ties to Iran.

    The "NewsHour" gained exclusive access to areas it controls near Iraq's border with Syria, just eighty miles from the Ayn Al Asad military base, which houses American troops still operating here to help the Iraqi government defeat ISIS remnants.

    But these fighters consider American forces here illegal and want them gone.

  • Hassan Ali, Soldier, Kataib Hezbollah (through translator):

    The 31st of December will be the last day for American troops in Iraq. If they don't leave voluntarily, they will leave by force. They will face the resistance factions and we will return to the year 2003.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The resistance he's referring to is a secretive network of Iran-backed insurgent groups that mobilized to fight the United States following its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    Kataib Hezbollah is part of the resistance, and, in 2009, the U.S. designated it a terror organization for targeting American forces and its Iraqi opponents. But, after the war with ISIS broke out in 2014, Kataib Hezbollah was folded into the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, an amalgamation of mostly Shia paramilitaries formed to fight ISIS.

    That means Kataib Hezbollah is now officially part of the Iraqi state. Still, these fighters see the United States as their enemy.

  • Hassan Ali (through translator):

    The Popular Mobilization Forces are against ISIS and against America at the same time. America is an occupier in Iraq, and we don't want occupation in our country.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Until recently, the PMF fought alongside the U.S. and other Iraqi security forces in the grueling four-year war against ISIS. This is where some of the final battles took place, near the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim and in Baghuz, just across the border in Syria.

    The border between Iraq and Syria remains closed for civilians, but al-Qaim has become a strategic waypoint along a corridor that connects Iran with its allies in Iraq and in Syria. That has also made it a flash point in the geopolitical conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

    The U.S. has accused Kataib Hezbollah stands of targeting U.S. forces with rockets, and more recently, weaponized drones. In response, the U.S. has repeatedly struck its bases. This facility was hit by an American airstrike in December 2019, killing 26 fighters and a brigade commander.

    Hassan Ali, one of three soldiers we were allowed to interview on camera during our two-day visit, witnessed the attack.

  • Hassan Ali (through translator):

    They targeted the headquarters, administration, medical unit and the rocket support unit.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    That December 2019 strike was part of a series of tit-for-tat attacks that culminated in the U.S. assassination of the powerful Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, as well as his close Iraqi associate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He founded Kataib Hezbollah and was second in charge of the PMF.

    The killings were labeled unlawful by a U.N. inquiry and sparked calls for revenge and a political backlash.

    Chanting "Baghdad is free, out with America," Iraq's Parliament voted in January 2020 to oust all foreign troops. That led to bilateral talks to renegotiate the American military presence in Iraq. Earlier this year, the two sides agreed to withdraw all American combat forces.

    Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, says that transition has been completed.

    Matthew Tueller, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: What that really means is that we have now transferred to the Iraqi forces the main role in conducting combat operations against ISIS and its remnants.

    What the U.S. and the coalition forces will do is provide an enabling mission, they will provide advice, they will provide intelligence, but they will be sitting alongside Iraqis in the operation centers.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Twenty-five hundred U.S. soldiers will remain in Iraq for that purpose, but their continued presence remains contested by groups like Kataib Hezbollah.

    Is the Biden administration prepared to strike these so-called resistance factions should there be a reaction from their side, for example, rocket or drone attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities?

  • Matthew Tueller:

    We are not here in order to fight against the so-called resistance factions or the armed militias. Our presence here is a mission to prevent ISIS from being able to resurge.

    So we look to the Iraqi government primarily as having the task to defend those forces that it has invited to be here on its territory. But, absolutely, this administration, as any administration, would say that it reserves the right to respond to or defend itself if it's facing attack.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Twice this year, the Biden administration targeted Kataib Hezbollah and its affiliates. This base was hit in June.

    The U.S. military said the strike against this base was a matter of self-defense, arguing it was used to launch drone strikes against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq. But Iraqi officials have condemned the attack as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty. And it's operations like these that have fueled growing resentment against U.S. military presence in Iraq.

    For the men at this training camp, the reclassification to a non-combat mission is not enough. They say they want every American soldier to leave by end of year, including advisers, and they're ready to use force.

    The recent airstrikes have hardened their stance against the U.S. and given them more reason to fight.

  • Abu Al Fadhil, Soldier, Kataib Hezbollah (through translator):

    We consider each American attack as a victory for us, and each drop of blood spilled by our martyrs is a jihadi march for us. This makes us stand.

    When America hits us, we consider them as an enemy, because they are targeting an Iraqi force.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But are they really an Iraqi state force, or are they a resistance militia fighting the U.S.? The answer appears vital to understanding and addressing this conflict.

    But Kataib Hezbollah is taking advantage of the vagueness of its status, which allows it to be both a state and a non-state actor. On the one hand, the fighters here claimed to report to Iraq's prime minister.

  • Abu Al Fadhil (through translator):

    Our responsibility is to control the Iraqi territories and the Iraqi borders, as assigned by the Iraqi government, because we are operating under the Iraqi flag.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But there were scarce signs this was an official state force. The cars didn't carry license plates, and none of the bases we visited were visibly marked as official PMF facilities.

    Many fighters, including the commander, didn't want to show their faces on camera, for fear of being targeted, and only few wore insignia. U.S. officials say Kataib Hezbollah merely uses the PMF for legal cover and to access state resources, while acting outside of the chain command to attack American forces and to subvert the Iraqi state.

  • Matthew Tueller:

    So, this is a post-conflict state. And it's not unusual in a post-conflict state to see armed groups that exist within the state.

    And, ultimately after a conflict, you try to go through a process of demobilizing armed groups, bringing them under the authority of the state, reintegrating them into society. What's been problematic for Iraq is they have a neighbor, Iran, that actually seeks to foster, to enable, to strengthen those type of groups.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    U.S. military commanders frequently refer to Kataib Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy. But the group also enjoys some political and popular backing inside Iraq and is acting more and more independently of Iran to pursue its goals.

    The soldiers we met denied that Kataib Hezbollah is loyal to Iran.

  • Noor Ahmed, Soldier, Kataib Hezbollah (through translator):

    This is an Iraqi mobilization force, not an Iranian one. Nobody denies that, as a friendly neighbor, Iran offered us support at a time when other countries didn't.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In addition to his job as a soldier, Noor Ahmed (ph) is studying economics in Baghdad. He says he became a fighter to earn a stable salary, but mainly to protect his country from what he sees as external threats.

  • Noor Ahmed (through translator):

    Because of the American occupation, the security situation in the region deteriorated. They are not willing to let Iraq destabilize.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Iraqi officials say that the best approach to rein in these groups is through gradual integration into the state, something that might only be possible following a prolonged period of stability and noninterference.

    But with the end-of-year deadline to withdraw U.S. troops approaching, there's fear that Iraq could be cast into a fresh cycle of attacks.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simona Foltyn on Iraq's borders with Syria.

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