US attack on Nujaba in Iraq lays bare widening rifts

As pressure mounts in the US to “do more” to deter attacks allegedly backed by Iran, Iraqi armed factions seem ever more divided.

Nujaba fighters taking part in the Baghdad funeral procession for Qassem Sulaimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. January 4, 2020
Shelly Kittleson
Nujaba fighters taking part in the Baghdad funeral procession for Qassem Sulaimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. January 4, 2020

US attack on Nujaba in Iraq lays bare widening rifts

BAGHDAD – A Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba spokesman notably said in 2016 that his Iraqi armed faction and Lebanon’s Hezbollah were “twins of resistance that cannot ever be loosened or separated”.

Hezbollah is the most powerful foreign faction supported by Iran as part of its “axis of resistance” against Israel and the US. Hezbollah and Nujaba have worked closely together in Syria against local armed opposition forces since the Iraqi armed faction’s founding for the express purpose of supporting Hezbollah ally Bashar al-Assad’s forces in 2013.

Smiles are seen on both the rotund baby face of Nujaba commander Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi under his white turban and the chubby but grizzled and bespectacled Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a posed photo appearing on linked armed factions’ websites celebrating that statement. The two “resistance” leaders hold hands in the photo in a loving manner typical of the public iconography of similar Shia jihadist factions.

Read more: Gaza war poses political dilemma for Iraq

The two famed and “martyred” resistance leaders Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Solaimani – both of whom men whose features and frames suggest more time on battlefields - are still a ubiquitous presence on billboards throughout Iraq long after the US assassinated them just outside the Baghdad airport in January 2020. The two men are often portrayed embracing or holding hands.

Three years later and especially in light of Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, the US and Israel are eyeing both Nujaba and Hezbollah warily.

Three years later and especially in light of Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, the US and Israel are eyeing both Nujaba and Hezbollah warily.

US watching as "resistance" divide widens?

Rockets, missile and drone attacks continued unabated on facilities in Iraq and Syria in early December amid thus far minimal reaction from the US, whose forces Iran-linked armed factions are targeting.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, yet another attack was carried out on the US embassy in Baghdad.

The US's killing of some Iran-linked Iraqi fighters in Iraqi territory in recent weeks has not been deemed a sufficient "deterrent" towards Iran for many opponents of the current US administration.

The largely muted reactions within Iraq to the killings – including five Iraqi Nujaba fighters in the Kirkuk province on Dec. 3 - has at the same time accentuated a split between Iran-led "axis of resistance" factions.

Shelly Kittleson
Iraqi counterterrorism services and international coalition forces at the Ain al-Asad Airbase in western Anbar, Iraq. March 1, 2022

Within Iraq, both Sunnis and Shia express distrust of the US. A sheikh from the Dulaime tribal confederation in the city of Fallujah west of Anbar opined to Al Majalla in an interview in early December that "if America wanted to kick Iran out of Iraq, it could in 24 hours. It doesn't want to. They work together".

The idea that the US and Iran collaborate "to keep Iraq in a state of chaos" is frequently voiced in the country's Sunni-dominant areas. That of a continued US presence in the country being the only way to retain some sort of balance is, as well.

"So long as Iran is controlling so much here, we need the US. The US should leave only after they manage to get the Iranians out as well," said the sheikh, who requested anonymity, not explaining how he thought this should happen.

Read more: Is US military support in Iraq still necessary?

Iran-linked Shia political and armed factions have instead for decades been urging an "immediate" withdrawal of US forces, who currently remain officially only as advisors and trainers in the country.

From Oct. 17 to Dec. 8, "U.S. and Coalition Forces have been attacked at least 84 times to date. 41 separate times in Iraq and 43 separate times in Syria by a mix of one-way attack drones, rockets, and close-range ballistic missiles," one US military official told Al Majalla in the evening of Dec. 8.

These attacks are suspected to have been conducted by Iran-linked factions. Other sources within the media and elsewhere cite higher numbers including possibly over 100 attacks.

Multiple US officials have said that they consider Iran to be in some way behind the attacks even if not necessarily implementing them. UN envoy Amir Saeid Iravani claimed earlier this month that Iran had not been involved in any of the actions or attacks against the US.

The idea that the US and Iran collaborate "to keep Iraq in a state of chaos" is frequently voiced in the country's Sunni-dominant areas.

Rockets 'from Baghdad park'

A "multi-rocket attack was launched at US and Coalition forces in the vicinity of Union III and the Baghdad Embassy Complex. No casualties and no damage to infrastructure reported," a US military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said in the morning of Dec. 8.

The attack came less than 24 hours after a funeral procession for a Kataib Hezbollah fighter the previous day who had been wounded in a US attack in late November that killed several others in the Babil province south of Baghdad.

Kataib Hezbollah is another Iraqi armed faction that is part of the Iran-led "axis of resistance".

"The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Prime Minister Mohammed S. Al-Sudani, has directed security leaders across sectors of responsibility to capture and prosecute those responsible for the rocket attack aimed at the US Embassy in Iraq," an official statement said.

"Prime Minister Al-Sudani emphasized that targeting diplomatic missions is unjustifiable and unacceptable under any circumstances, regardless of the allegations or the delusions behind such shameful acts," it added.

Photos were circulated on social media of what were purportedly the rockets used in the attack, showing the legs and blue-gloved hands of men in military fatigues wearing shiny, well-polished shoes as they displayed the munitions for the camera. The backdrop, with pink roses and purple morning glory flowers, was reportedly that a park on Baghdad's Abu Nawass Street.

Abu Nawass Street and park are directly across the Tigris River from the Green Zone. The French Embassy and cultural center are located near the road on the same side.

Nujaba's origins and the fight in Syria

In a funeral procession for the Nujaba fighters on Dec. 4, men in turbans and ones in baseball caps embraced each other, sobbing and kissing the photos of the five men killed that had been pasted onto the sides of the refrigerated vehicles carrying their bodies.

A member of the local security forces near the Dibis area in Iraq's Kirkuk province where the fighters were killed denied to Al Majalla that the site targeted was an actual base of the country's official Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs).

Nujaba, the Iran-linked Iraqi faction whose fighters were killed in the US "self-defense" strike in Kirkuk on Dec. 3 is a faction that has long been considered one of the most hardline within the Iran-led "resistance".

Its commander stated in 2015 that he would follow Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei's instructions even if ordered to overthrow the Iraqi government.

Read more: Mosul on the mend six years after IS fall

Nujaba was formed in 2013 to fight across the border in Syria against the armed opposition to the government under Bashar al-Assad and played a key role in taking back large parts of the Syrian industrial capital Aleppo as well as other areas in the country from local armed opposition groups.

Its commander, Kaabi, had long been involved in "resistance" against the West but gained more prominence after forming Nujaba following "disagreements" with the commander of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq resistance faction, Qais al-Khazali.

Iraqi members of the Nujaba faction that the author of this article spoke to at a funeral procession and demonstration in Baghdad in the days after the US assassinated Muhandis and Solaimani in January 2020 told her that they had gone with the Iraqi armed group to fight in Syria as teenagers and adolescents.

They said that they felt proud of having fought alongside "Hajji Qassem" there but that they were now receiving salaries from the Iraqi government as part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs).

Nujaba is, notably the Iran-linked Iraqi "resistance" faction that claimed responsibility for a Nov. 9 attack on the Israeli port of Eilat. The Israeli military claimed after the attack that "an organization in Syria" had launched the drone, which hit a school in the southern Israeli city of Eilat.

"The brave Mujahid Alavi forces in the Islamic resistance of Iraq, by the grace of God, successfully targeted the Eilat port in occupied Palestine, and the vassals of the criminal Zionists in Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula failed to intercept it," Nujaba chief and founder Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi was quoted by Iranian news agency IRNA as saying.

Kaabi directly referenced the "Zionist regime" and the US, vowing to inflict more harm on them.

Shelly Kittleson
Election poster showing former PM Nouri al-Maliki. Baghdad, Iraq. Nov. 30, 2023

Nujaba well placed for 'resistance' leadership?

Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba literally translates as the Movement of the Party of God's Nobles.

According to an analysis by Tamer al-Badawi published in January 2020, a "senior adviser in a news outlet associated with the resistance axis told Al-Monitor that while Muhandis' Kataib Hezbollah militia had been a key facilitator between Iraqi factions," Nujaba had been "assuming this role lately".

Badawi went on to list five "comparative advantages" that Nujaba and its leader Kaabi have enabled it to act as an "inter-factional facilitator and mediator": The faction "refuses to get involved" in politics; it is a "mid-sized entity that has a potent militant force but not a dominant one that makes it a competitor to mega militant groupings" in Iraq's PMUs; Kaabi belongs to an influential tribe in southern Iraq; Kaabi was a student of popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's father; and Kaabi "enjoys strong and direct ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran's higher echelons".

In 2008, the US Department of the Treasury designated Kaabi "under E.O. 13438 for planning and conducting multiple attacks against Coalition forces, including mortar and rocket launches into the International Zone."

In March 2019, the US Department of State designated both Nujaba and Kaabi "as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs)", according to a statement on its website.

In March 2019, the US Department of State designated both Nujaba and Kaabi "as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs)", according to a statement on its website.

Pressure is meanwhile mounting in the US to take more decisive measures against Iran, including within the halls of Congress.

Many close observers of Iraq note that the US has been very hesitant to respond to a constant but largely inefficient barrage of attacks by Iran-linked factions in recent weeks, which have resulted in relatively few injuries to US forces and little damage to facilities.

There have also been multiple calls to withdraw all US troops from the Middle East but these have not met with Congressional approval.

On Nov, 7, the US Senate voted down a bill with only 13 votes in favor and 84 against that would have required US president Joe Bien to withdraw the roughly 900 troops stationed in Syria.

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