This week, a previously little-known militant group called Saraya Awlia al-Dam – the Guardians of Blood – claimed responsibility for an attack on the U.S. base at Erbil airport in northern Iraq that killed a civilian contractor and injured nine people.
But the Guardians of Blood is just one of the front names for established pro-Iranian radical Shia militia groups such as Asaib Ahl a-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah which have surfaced under new identities on Telegram since August 2020.
The Shia militias are all nominally under the direction of the Iraqi government, mainly under the name of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), locally known as Hashed – an umbrella organisation including over 40 other groups formed to fight the Islamic State in 2014.
However, many of these groups operate under the direction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian army founded after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The ideologically driven unit serves as the regime’s iron fist to preserve the Islamic system in Iran, and pursue Iran’s regional strategic interests beyond its borders.
Philip Smyth, an expert on the Shiite Militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the overall strategy as a trick from an "old playbook” of the IRGC-affiliated groups across the region, which creates confusion among people and policymakers on how to handle each emerging new front or group. “They have an excellent branding and marketing strategy, and with Telegram, Twitter and social media they have an extensive outreach, which helps to create more confusion every time an attack or an activity carried out under the name of a new front,” he said.
The network of IRGC proxies has a long reach in the Middle East, including Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Starting with Lebanese Hezbollah's prototype in the 1980s, the Iranian elite force commanders have managed to quickly adapt and create new groups depending on the political, social, and military goals.
The most hardcore groups in Iraq include Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezballah, which were designated as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2019 through the “Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act.” The US has already listed a dozen individuals and groups on its terror list, which has set an example for the rest of the militias and their affiliates operating in Iraq.
The number of attacks on U.S. targets has increased in the past year, following the killing of the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani of IRGC, and his Iraqi protégé Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike after their arrival at Baghdad airport from Syria in the first week of January last year.
More protesters at the US embassy in Baghdad in December 2019. Photo: Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The groups' activities aren't only limited to military operations, but organising rallies against rival political blocs, setting fire to liquor stores and beauty salons while calling them "dens of prostitution," and assassinating women rights activists, journalists, and academics under the name of "moral policing" and upholding Islamic values in Iraq. Several fronts with names like Rab Allah (God's Lads), Ahbab Allah (God's Beloved), Al-Zelm Al-Khashnah (Tough Dudes) and Abu Jeddaha (Lightermen) are specifically known for their use of fire and burning down their opponents' buildings.
Many of the senior members of PMF entered elections in Iraq under the name of the Fatah alliance, and the group's political bloc came second in the Iraqi general elections in 2018. The bloc retains strong political power in the Iraqi political sphere, and when taken together with their unofficial military power, their leaders have serious influence in every political decision taken in Iraq.
Mustafa Kadhimi, the weak caretaker prime minister of Iraq, has little room for manoeuvre around the dozen of these militant groups, despite them being nominally under his control. Still, he has settled for far-fetched promises to crack down on these groups through press conferences from the fortified Green Zone, which has been increasingly targeted since his takeover since May 2020.
Abu Ali al-Askari, a senior Kataib Hezbollah commander, threatened to "cut his ears as the ears of a goat are cut" and described Kadhimi as a "traitor", accusing him of cooperating with the US in the killing of Soleimani, and al-Muhandis. The Iraqi judiciary only responded by issuing an arrest warrant for al-Askari, an order that might hardly leave Baghdad's courthouse.
The standout symbol of all the militias is the "fist and a Kalashnikov," Smyth says, which quickly helps groups to be recognised locally. "It is a great way to signal the Americans and also to the people in the region to say, 'look! you kinda know who is backing us, but do you really know' and the confusion around that creates an analysis paralysis,” he said.
"Depending on the operation and the activity, the logos and emblems are designed, sometimes very professionally, and other times really amateur to appeal to younger generations, and the claims of responsibility are directed in the backrooms, even sometimes a rocket team wouldn't know that they are a part of that front who claims the attack.”
"There are many other symbols and examples of Shia Islam like the blood of Imam Ali and Hussain, and symbols of martyrdom used in the flags and logos of these front, and now Soleimani and al-Muhandis are the contemporary martyrs of the Islamic Revolution," Smyth added.
Despite irritating the western countries and the Iraqi government, the Iran-backed groups enjoy considerable support in the Shia-majority areas of Iraq. The government in Baghdad needs to work around them because they only answer to their religion – and their patrons in Tehran.
"The names might be laughable like the 'Companions of the Cave' under some cultural influences, but these people are theocrats and believers of the system. The message they are trying to convey is; basically, these people are hidden entities who came out of the cave after hundreds of years to a society that religion has prevailed,” said Smyth.