The U.S. State Department designated Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a largely Shiite Iraqi militia and political group, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on Friday, January 3.
The terror designation, which also saw the group’s alleged leaders, brothers Qays and Laith al-Khazali, labeled as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, came one day after the U.S. killed a senior Iranian general and an Iraqi government official – both previously designated by the U.S. as Iran-linked terrorists – in an airstrike near Baghdad international airport.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, also known as AAH, is one of the largest Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units, militias that organized to fight Islamic State in 2014.
Hashd al-Shaabi groups nominally fall under the Iraqi government’s authority, but operate with significant autonomy. Many, like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, have gained material and political power with the help of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to the State Department, AAH “has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks” against U.S. and Coalition forces since its creation in 2006, adding that the group “has carried out highly sophisticated operations” including mortar attacks on a U.S. base and downing a British helicopter.
The U.S. sanctioned the Khazali brothers for involvement in violent repression of Iraqi anti-government protests in December. The two Khazalis have long been linked to the IRGC and were blamed for planing a raid that killed five American soldiers in Iraq in 2007.
US strikes against Iraqi PMUs
On December 29, the U.S. killed some 25 Kataib Hezbollah personnel in five airstrikes in response to a rocket attack that left one U.S. contractor dead and wounded American and Iraqi military personnel at the K-1 airbase in Kirkuk province. That attack was the latest in a series of similar incidents which the U.S. has blamed on Iran-linked militias in Iraq.
The following day, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s PMU and a founder of Kataib Hezbollah, vowed retaliation for the U.S. strikes on the group.
On Tuesday, demonstrators waving PMU flags stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Both Muhandis and Qays al-Khazali were photographed at the protest. No Americans were reported injured or killed.
Then on Thursday night, a U.S. airstrike killed al-Muhandis, also known as Jamaal Jaafar Ibrahim, alongside the commander of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport. The Pentagon claimed the strike was conducted to “deter future Iranian attack plans” and carried out on the orders of President Donald Trump.
In response, Al-Khazali ordered his fighters to prepare for the “upcoming battle” against the U.S..
Under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, the U.S. military is only legally authorized by Congress to fight against Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their affiliates in Iraq and Syria, but American forces can strike other forces in self-defense. ISIS and al-Qaeda are Sunni extremist groups also considered enemies by the Shiite militias.
The U.S. first designated the IRGC’s Quds Force as a terrorist group in 2009, and expanded that designation to the whole IRGC in April 2019.
The Trump administration appears to have used that justification in order to target Quds Force commander Soleimani in Iraq. During a conference call with reporters on Friday, a senior Defense Department official declined to specify what legal justification was used to kill Soleimani, al-Monitor reporter Jack Detsch tweeted.
The Pentagon concluded earlier this year that more than 600 American soldiers were killed by IRGC-backed groups during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The U.S. has blamed Soleimani.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned in May of a “swift and decisive” response to any attack on American personnel by Iran-linked groups. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that the U.S. would take “preemptive” military action against Iran-linked militias in Iraq to protect U.S. personnel.
“This is what you happens when you face daily humiliation for years on end,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You snap.”
“This was very deliberate.”
Washington has accused Soleimani of fostering a significant power-base inside Iraq with the help of current and former Hashd militia leaders in opposition to U.S. interests and influence in the country.
Washington has spent trillions of dollars and thousands of soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq since overthrowing the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, before supporting Iraq’s security forces to rid the country of Islamic State starting in 2015.
The IRGC also backed local Shiite militias to fight Islamic State in Iraq, and has supported such groups for years to expel the U.S. from Iraq.