Widening Middle East crisis: Iraqi militia blamed for deadly attack says it will stop attacking US forces

In a surprise move, an Iran-linked militia in Iraq that the Pentagon said was likely responsible for a deadly drone attack on a U.S. base in Jordan over the weekend announced Tuesday that it would suspend military operations in Iraq under pressure from the Iraqi government. and from Iran.

The announcement came shortly after President Biden said he had decided how to respond to the attack in Jordan on Sunday that left three American soldiers dead, although he did not say what that response would be. His comment raised fears in Iraq about a possible US retaliatory attack on its territory.

The Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, or Party of God Brigades, is the largest and most established of the Iran-linked groups operating in Iraq. It has led most of the around 160 attacks on US military facilities in Iraq and Syria that have occurred since Israel began its ground operations in Gaza, acting in response to the October 7 attack that Hamas led from the enclave.

The US military has about 2,500 soldiers in Iraq advising and training the Iraqi army and about 900 in Syria, supporting the Syrian Kurdish defense forces in their fight against the Islamic State.

Kata’ib Hezbollah is part of what is known as the Axis of Resistance, a network of Iranian-backed groups operating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and occasionally further afield. (Kata’ib Hezbollah is separate from the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.)

The other two Iraqi groups believed to have been involved in attacks on US targets – Harakat al Nujaba and Sayyid Shuhada – have not announced they will stop the attacks.

Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi said in a statement: “We announce the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces, to avoid an embarrassing situation for the Iraqi government.” It was the first time that the militia publicly declared the suspension of its operations.

The statement made clear that Iran had pressured the group to stop attacks on US troops and that Kata’ib Hezbollah was not happy about it. The group made a point of suggesting that it choose its own objectives and timing, rather than following Iran’s orders.

“Our brothers in the Axis, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran, do not know how we carry out our Jihad, and often object to the pressure and escalation against the American occupation forces in Iraq and Syria,” the statement said.

When asked about Kata’ib Hezbollah’s announcement, a Defense Department spokesman, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, said at a Pentagon briefing: “I don’t have any specific comment to offer other than that the actions “They speak louder than words.”

He added: “I will refrain from editorializing on such comments after more than 160 attacks against US forces.”

Interviews with Iraqi and Iranian officials close to both governments suggest that there have been intense negotiations in recent days aimed at pressuring Kata’ib Hezbollah to stop its attacks.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani began pushing for a suspension of the regime several weeks ago, according to senior government aides. He was trying to begin negotiations over an eventual withdrawal of the U.S.-led international military presence in Iraq, but the U.S. side had been unwilling to negotiate while under fire, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.

The United States finally agreed to start talks with no guarantee that the attacks would stop, but with a clear push in that direction.

Kata’ib Hezbollah and other groups had ignored the Iraqi government’s call to resign, but once Sunday’s attack in Jordan claimed American lives, Sudani demanded a complete halt from Kata’ib Hezbollah. Sudani approached Iran directly, according to a Revolutionary Guard military strategist who works closely with Axis groups in Iraq.

Sudani argued that he was trying to negotiate what Iran wanted most – ending the presence of US troops in Iraq – and that Kata’ib Hezbollah’s attacks were undermining his government’s ability to do so, according to the Iranian military strategist and a senior Iraqi official, who spoke anonymously to discuss private negotiations.

An Iraqi government spokesman, Hisham al-Rikabi, painted much the same picture. “Kata’ib Hezbollah’s decision came as a result of measures taken by the prime minister internally and externally to prevent escalation and ensure the smooth completion of negotiations to complete the international coalition’s withdrawal process from Iraq,” He said.

Mr al-Rikabi added: “We hope that all parties will heed the government’s call to reduce tension and ensure that there are no hot spots of tension in the region, and in Iraq in particular.”

The negotiations involved senior Sudani government officials who are close to Iran, according to Iraqi and Iranian officials close to their respective government leaders. Among those involved in the negotiations were former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the leaders of two armed groups that have not attacked US forces: Qais al-Khazali and Hadi al-Ameri. Participating in the talks on the Iranian side were General Esmail Qaani, leader of the Quds Force, a division of the Revolutionary Guard that works with Axis groups outside Iran.

The report was contributed by Falih Hassan from Baghdad, Farnaz Fassihi from New York and Eric Schmitt from Washington, D.C.