Eye on Iran's Proxies and Partners - February 16, 2024

Eye on Iran's Proxies and Partners - February 16, 2024


Iran-Backed Iraqi Militias Exert Political Pressure To Force Complete U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Iraq 

Bilateral negotiations between Iraq and the U.S. on the American troop presence in Iraq resumed on February 11, following a pause due to the deadly attack against U.S. forces at Tower 22 in Jordan on January 28. Within the CENTCOM area of responsibility, approximately 2,500 troops are deployed at bases in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, conducting a counterterrorism mission against the Islamic State (ISIS). 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani has conveyed mixed messages regarding his negotiating objectives. He is allied with the ‘Coordination Framework’ coalition, comprising former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition; the Al-Fatah Alliance, led by the Iran-backed Badr Organization’s Hadi Al-Ameri, which also includes Asaib Ahl Al-Haq’s (AAH) political wing; and other Iran-backed militias with less seats. This coalition has pushed for legislation that would require the U.S. to leave Iraq. It wasn’t the first time. Days after the Trump Administration assassinated Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January 2020, Iraq voted to remove the U.S. but to no avail. 

These Iran-aligned political factions—some whose history with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) extends back to the Saddam era and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)—expanded influence in Iraq after mobilizing in 2014 and contributing to ISIS’ territorial defeat in 2017. Among some constituencies in Iraq, though, the U.S. is a more trusted security guarantor, especially noting that the last time it withdrew completely in 2011, ISIS took over swathes of the country. The Iran-backed militias also acquired a reputation for brutality as they cleared ISIS territory, inflicted reprisals on civilians, and consolidated control over the areas they seized.  

U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Report On Counter-ISIS Mission In Iraq And Syria Released 

Both Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba (HHN), the Iran-backed militias in Iraq that were blamed for the deadly Tower 22 against the U.S., were identified in DOD’s report as members of the ‘Islamic Resistance in Iraq.’ HHN leader and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) senior commander, Mushtaq Jawad Kazim Al-Jawari, was killed on January 4 in a drone strike that resembled the one against senior KH commander Abu Baqir Al-Saadi near Baghdad on February 7. 

Additionally, the report identified Harakat Ansar Allah Al-Awfiya and Kataib Sayyid Al-Shuhada, the latter of which was allegedly involved in a rocket attack in February 2021 on a U.S. base at Erbil International Airport in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq that killed a contractor and injured an American servicemember.

Badr Organization and AAH, two powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq, were not identified as members of the ‘Islamic Resistance in Iraq.’ These two groups have pressured Sudani, calling for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops and saying they do not support bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq. Although they have not claimed attacks on the U.S. since October 7, Badr Organization, led by Hadi Al-Ameri, and AAH, led by Qais Khazali, have a long history of attacking the U.S. that goes back to the 2003 Iraq War. 

Israel and the Palestinian Territories  

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Special Operators Conduct Daring Hostage-Rescue Mission In Rafah 

With close air support, special forces raided a building in Rafah, one of Hamas’ last remaining strongholds, that was identified as the location of two hostages. Upon approaching and entering the building, the team exchanged heavy fire with Hamas militants, neutralizing several of them without inadvertently harming the hostages themselves. The mission resulted in their safe exfiltration and return to Israel. 

As the IDF continued clearing operations in Khan Younis and other cities and towns in Gaza, it discovered a tunnel system that had been recently used to shelter Hamas’ Gaza-based leader Yahya Sinwar, one of the most wanted and senior members of Hamas being hunted by Israel. Footage of the shelter was released on social media, showing that he likely evacuated the area beneath Khan Younis soon before the IDF arrived. 

Hamas Infrastructure Discovered Beneath United Nations (U.N.) Aid Agency Headquarters 

The U.N. agency tasked with administering foreign aid in the Gaza Strip, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), denied over the weekend that it knew about the Hamas compound beneath its premises. In late January 2024, Israel disclosed intelligence that hundreds of Hamas operatives had been employed by UNRWA—and that some of them even participated in Hamas’ October 7 attack. Because of these findings, the Biden Administration suspended U.S. funding to the aid agency. In 2022, the U.S. was its top donor after the administration reversed the Trump policy, which had ended transfers in 2018. Israel’s intelligence shows the challenges of administering aid in a territory controlled by a terrorist organization. 

The unearthed compound was deliberately constructed beneath this civilian area in order to shield it from airstrikes. The subterranean infrastructure housed computer servers and was said to provide important communications and intelligence functions. It remains unlikely UNRWA had no idea, given the loud excavation and building process that must have taken place literally beneath its feet. Worse, the servers were allegedly drawing from the UNRWA office’s electricity. Yet, the U.N. did not take measures against Hamas; the tunnel was only discovered as a result of Israeli military operations. 

Lebanon and Hezbollah 

Hezbollah Radwan Unit Commander And His Deputy Confirmed Dead In Lebanon 

The IDF confirmed the death of a senior Hezbollah commander in the elite Radwan Unit. Ali Muhammad Al-Debes was killed along with his deputy Hassan Ibrahim Issa in a drone strike on a building in Nabatieh, Lebanon on February 14. Earlier that day, Hezbollah had launched a rocket into Israel, killing one IDF soldier and wounding eight others. The IDF also noted that Debes masterminded an IED attack at the Megiddo junction in March 2023 and was responsible for multiple attacks against Israel from southern Lebanon since the war in Gaza began. 

Hezbollah has amassed its troops on the border with Israel, causing hundreds of thousands to evacuate their homes in northern Israel. On February 8, Israel allegedly made its first attempt on Debes, but he survived the strike on his vehicle with injuries. This was a significant escalation by Israel, showing its patience with Hezbollah is wearing thin. In response, Hezbollah fired a large barrage of rockets at Israel. A few days later, Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech from a hidden location in which he reiterated his position that Hezbollah’s daily attacks on Israel are in support of Hamas, saying, “Hezbollah will not stop the border offensive before the end of the Zionist war on Gaza.” 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Liaises With Senior Leaders In The Axis Of Resistance On Regional Tour 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Amir Hossein-Abdollahian toured the region, stopping in Lebanon, where he met Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah; Syria, where he met Assad; and Qatar, where he met Hamas’ political bureau head Ismael Haniyeh. Prior to meeting Haniyeh, Abdollahian met with the Qatari emir and prime minister. 


IRGC Withdrew From Key Positions In Syria Ahead Of U.S. Warning Of Retaliatory Strikes

The U.S. claimed to have targeted Iranian assets in its aerial assault across Iraq and Syria on February 2, including facilities belonging to the IRGC, for the first time since the October 7, Hamas terrorist attack. However, reports indicate that some IRGC officials were recalled to Tehran before the strikes were carried out. The U.S. telegraphed its strike plans—and may have even provided more detail through alleged back channels—in the hopes of avoiding further escalation. About 900 American troops are stationed in Syria at several bases, including the Al-Tanf Garrison, near the southern border with Iraq, which is close to Tower 22 in Jordan and on a critical roadway; and bases in east and northeast Syria, where the U.S. works with its Kurdish allies to fight ISIS. Iran-backed militias under the command of the IRGC and Hezbollah deployed in large numbers during the Syrian civil war to defend Assad and remain in the country, with important positions in eastern Syria, west of the Euphrates River.