Kata’ib Hezbollah a perennial rebel against the Iraqi government
An Iraqi court this month handed down a death sentence to a former policeman who was convicted of killing prominent academic Hisham Al-Hashimi in a shooting that took place in July 2020, near the victim’s house in the capital Baghdad. The crime was documented by Al-Hashimi’s home security camera.
The convict, Ahmed Ouaid Al-Kinani, a police officer employed by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, confessed to killing Al-Hashimi in July 2021 in video footage aired on an Iraqi television channel.
Al-Kinani’s affiliation with the Ministry of Interior came as a shock to many but, more importantly, he was a member of Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the country’s most radical militias and a Popular Mobilization Units faction.
During the years of following up on my friend Al-Hashimi’s assassination file, I communicated with figures in the Iraqi government headed by former Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and other sources inside Iraq, all of whom confirmed to me Kata’ib Hezbollah was behind the attack. The Iraqi government and the judiciary did not indicate officially, however, that the people concerned with the case knew this perfectly well.
This highlights the importance of the death sentence issued against Al-Kinani. It not only condemns the perpetrator, but it also raises awareness that he belongs to a faction that has security, political and economic relations with partners in the Coordination Framework, a coalition of parties that brought Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani to power last year.
Thus, although the convict has the right to appeal, the verdict condemns — albeit without naming the group — the political-criminal behavior of Kata’ib Hezbollah, which certainly wished that the case had been settled without reaching the death penalty.
Last Monday, clashes took place between a group of gunmen and Iraqi security forces in the Al-Buaitha neighborhood, southwest of Baghdad. Local media sources indicated that the gunmen were members of Kata’ib Hezbollah. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, the clashes were the result of the insistence of a militiaman on owning some agricultural land in the area. In some other accounts, the police officers raided an oil smuggling site controlled by Kata’ib Hezbollah.
The Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office indicated on Twitter that the security services attempted to remove trespassers from public property, which resulted in clashes that saw two people sustain minor injuries. It added that “the security forces immediately endeavored to take legal measures to deal with and arrest these people, and put them under investigation, while removing the unlawful trespassers,” without indicating whether or not the gunmen belonged to Kata’ib Hezbollah.
According to several sources, two events in the same month related to Kata’ib Hezbollah have prompted questions about the nature of the relationship between the group and the Iraqi government. There are concerns about whether it will adhere to the general guidelines that its allies in the Coordination Framework follow or if it will show, in its own way, its distinction from the other factions and that it will not abide by all of Al-Sudani’s policies.
Two events in the same month have prompted questions about the nature of the relationship between Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Iraqi government.
Since assuming the reins last October, Al-Sudani has sought to mitigate the presence of armed military factions outside the authority of the state. And, although he is aware of the difficulty of the task at hand, he is seeking, as a candidate of the Coordination Framework and through his good relations with the political leadership in Iran, as well as with Iraqi politicians and prominent party leaders such as Nouri Al-Maliki, Qais Al-Khazali and Hadi Al-Amiri, to convince his partners that there should be no overt military activity without the permission of the state.
He has obtained relative cooperation in this matter, which in itself is a success, from parties such as Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, the Badr Brigade and Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba. Hence, we notice that Al-Sudani “follows a path familiar to Iraqi governments, where he does the minimum necessary to prevent the deterioration of relations with Washington while meeting the aspirations of his partners supported by Iran,” according to David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute.
Al-Sudani, who appears to be taking quiet steps internally and opening up diplomatically and economically toward the Arab Gulf states, was apparently able — albeit temporarily — to convince some of his allies of the importance of mitigating the anti-American rhetoric. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, which took place under Chinese auspices, may have been in favor of Al-Sudani’s policies, prompting some party leaders to change their tone toward Washington.
Researchers Hamdi Malik and Michael Knights, in a January article for the Washington Institute titled “Militia Spokesmen Reflect on Sudani Inviting U.S. Forces to Remain,” wrote that Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq was adopting practical thinking, while Kata’ib Hezbollah was “contorting its arguments to allow it to play along, albeit without explicitly accepting a US military presence.” They referred to a “pragmatism” in the behavior shown by Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, more so than by Kata’ib Hezbollah. However, the efforts of the latter focus mainly on extremist work and security operations, which makes political and intellectual changes difficult for it due to a predetermined doctrinal vision.
This analysis could indicate that Al-Sudani manages, with great discipline, the government’s relationships with the armed factions. To date, this has been achieved without implying the possibility of a broader pass by Kata’ib Hezbollah. However, its abuses could accumulate and there may be repercussions from the implementation of the death sentence of Al-Kinani, if the final judgment is approved and applied. In that moment, it will become apparent to what degree the allies of Al-Sudani will stand by the rule of law and the success of the prime minister’s experiment with regards to the influence of the militias.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran.