The Iraqi Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah denied any role in the February 15th rocket attack on a US military base in Erbil, Iraq, that left one contractor dead and wounded nine others, including one US soldier.
Kataib Hezbollah is aligned with Iran, although the amount of influence Tehran has on the militia is unclear and is likely overblown by Washington. While the Biden administration has yet to assign blame for the Erbil attack, US media outlets were quick to pin the blame on Iran and its allies in Iraq despite a lack of evidence.
“We absolutely did not target Erbil or the Green Zone and have no knowledge of the group that did,” Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Mohi told Reuters, referring to the Green Zone in Baghdad where the US embassy is located. Rockets were fired towards the embassy on Monday, but no casualties were reported.
Mohi wants the US to withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops it has in Iraq and believes detente between the US and Iran can lead to that. With Iran seeking sanctions relief from the new Biden administration, Tehran would have no reason to provoke the US by orchestrating an attack in Iraq.
As the US began drawing down forces in Iraq in 2020, an informal truce between the US and Iraqi militias led to a decline in rocket attacks on US bases. There was an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad in December 2020 that President Trump blamed on Iran, but Kataib Hezbollah denied any involvement, and Iran was urging its allies at the time not to provoke the US.
At the end of 2019, the Trump administration blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack in Kirkuk, Iraq, that killed a US contractor. The US bombed the militia, killing dozens of its fighters. But the US never substantiated the claim that Kataib Hezbollah was behind the Kirkuk attack, and Iraqi intelligence later said they believed it was more likely carried out by ISIS.
The Kirkuk attack set off the series of events that led to the US assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is a group of mostly Shia Iraqi state-sponsored militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, that was formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.
In the wake of the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel US forces, and rocket attacks on US bases stepped up. While the hawks are quick to blame violence on US troops in Iraq on Iran, the reality is, there are many factions inside the country who have their own nationalist reasons to fire on the US. There are also groups like ISIS that have an interest in provoking a conflict between the US and Iraq’s Shia militias.