Warning Intelligence Update: Iran Increases Pressure on U.S. Forces in Iraq
By Katherine Lawlor with Brandon Wallace
Key Takeaway: Iran is organizing a new effort to increase political and military pressure against U.S. forces in an effort to compel an American withdrawal from Iraq. Iran’s proxy militia groups are working with Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to organize a “million strong march” on January 24 to oppose U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Sadr’s support lends additional credibility to the march and may enable Iran’s proxies to generate a more significant protest than they otherwise would be able to achieve. Iran is also attempting to coalesce its lethal Iraqi proxy militias, and potentially Sadr, into a more unified military force to target U.S. forces in the region. Iran faces some obstacles in doing so, but the formation of an anti-U.S. Iraqi resistance front poses a significant threat, even in its preliminary stages of organization.
Tripwire: Iranian proxies and nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr are coordinating a joint “million strong march” against U.S. troop presence in Iraq on Friday, January 24. Sadr announced the march on January 14 and major Iranian proxies endorsed the march in subsequent days, including leaders of Badr, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Harakat al-Nujaba. Iran seeks to use this protest to apply additional political pressure on the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq and on Iraqis to compel that withdrawal. Iran also seeks to use this march to coopt Iraq’s popular protest movement. Sadr’s participation is an inflection because he ordinarily opposes Iran’s proxies in Iraq. Sadr’s support lends additional credibility to the march and may enable Iran’s proxies to generate a more significant protest than they would otherwise have been able to organize.
Pattern: The upcoming “million strong march” is one element of Iran’s reinvigorated effort to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. Iran began organizing its lethal Iraqi proxies into a new “resistance front,” which may include Sadr, after the U.S. strike that killed IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani and de-facto PMF leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis on January 3, 2020. Iran’s proxies held a flurry of meetings in Beirut, Lebanon and Qom, Iran from January 9-13 to coordinate this resistance group and the million-strong march. Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah convened the first meeting in Beirut. The reported objective of the talks was to overcome internal and intra-militia divisions in order to establish a unified resistance movement to oppose U.S. diplomatic and military presence in Iraq. Before these meetings, multiple proxy leaders had begun using similar language to describe “international resistance groups,” “International Resistance Regiments,” and an “Iraqi Resistance Front.” Multiple proxy leaders then traveled to Qom for further meetings with the new IRGC-QF commander, as well as Moqtada al-Sadr and his aides. Sadr and Iran’s proxies subsequently announced the “million strong march.”
Iran’s effort to create a new “resistance front” is still in its early stages and faces multiple obstacles, including rivalries between its proxy militias. Nevertheless, this attempt to establish an umbrella organization demonstrates that Iran perceives a new requirement to organize its proxies as well as an opportunity to coopt Sadr. Iran is likely concerned about reasserting firm control over its proxy network in order to ensure that its proxies do not act unilaterally following the death of their usual organizers, Soleimani and Muhandis.
It is unclear whether Sadr will join the “resistance front” as a military or political actor; his support for the “million-strong march” and “resistance front” is likely based in pragmatic self-interest and may not last. Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who would prefer that both Iran and the United States demonstrate respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and withdraw their military forces. He is a political and military competitor of the most prominent Iranian proxy leader, Hadi al-Ameri, who fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war and is fundamentally loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader rather than to the sense of Iraqi nationalism which animates Sadr. Ameri was particularly close to IRGC-QF Commander Soleimani. However, Sadr, Ameri, and most Iraqi Shi’a politicians overcame their differences to pass a non-binding resolution to expel U.S. forces on January 5. Sadr appears to have decided to align himself, at least temporarily, with Ameri and Iran’s proxies to pursue their shared interest of expelling U.S. forces.
Sadr is attempting to retain some independence even as he supports Iran’s effort. He ordered his followers who join the march to wave only the Iraqi flag, implicitly discouraging them from flying the PMF flag as Iran’s proxies likely intend. He explicitly forbade participants to “disclose in any way [their] religious, ideological, ethnic, partisan, military, or jihadist affiliation,” or to identify themselves as anything other than Iraqi. This order places a conscious distance between Sadr’s Iraqi nationalist motivations and the pro-Iran sentiments of the proxy militias. Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, strongly warned against actors who may attempt to “exploit” the popular protests to “serve their own interests” in an indirect condemnation of Iran and Sadr’s effort.
Less than forty-eight hours before the protests were scheduled to begin, Sadr released a statement further differentiating himself and his demonstrators from Iran’s proxy militias. A Facebook post on a page which Sadr uses to communicate with his followers stated that “[the Sadrist demonstrators] are not among the undisciplined militias, and we do not want them in our demonstrations.” This statement sets the stage for three potentially conflicting demonstrations on Friday: the anti-American demonstration of Sadr, the anti-American demonstration of Iran’s proxies, and the continued appeals for government reform by Iraq’s popular protest movement.
Militia groups which may be involved in the Iraqi resistance front:
- Kata’ib Hezbollah
- Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq
- Jaysh al-Mahdi, Saraya al-Salam, and the Promised Day Brigades
- Harakat al-Nujaba
- Kataib Jund al-Imam
- Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada 
- Kata’ib al-Imam Ali
- Saraya Imam al-Husayn al-Istishhadiya [Unknown Affiliation]
Timing: Iran’s effort to create a “resistance front” and a “million-strong march” against the U.S. in Iraq is the next phase of its retaliation for the strike against Qassem Soleimani. Iran’s first phase included leveraging its political influence to support the non-binding resolution in Iraq’s parliament that asked the Iraqi government to expel U.S. forces on January 5 and the ballistic missile strike that attempted but failed to kill American personnel at a base in Anbar and in Iraqi Kurdistan on January 8. The missile strike was an overt escalation by Iran’s military. Iran then signaled its intent to pursue further escalation via proxies. On January 9, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force gave a press conference in which he stated that the missile strike was the start of a major operation across the region. He stood in front of a number of flags depicting Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” including Iraq’s PMF, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun, the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun, the Hamas Political Office, the IRGC Aerospace Force, the IRGC, and the Iranian national flag. The flurry of meetings between Iranian proxy groups in Beirut began the same day.
The U.S. strike against Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis on January 3 was a turning point for Sadr’s behavior in Iraq. His coordination of the march, his potential involvement with the Iraqi resistance front, and his temporary political alliance with Iran’s proxies are significant departures from his ordinary approach. Sadr is traditionally opposed to all foreign, including Iranian, interference in Iraqi affairs. He has previously called for the dissolution of the PMF and has kept the funding, training, and organizational structure of his own militias separate from the PMF. Sadr also leads a bloc in the Iraqi parliament that is a counterweight to Iran’s proxy coalition and had been a dampener on Iran’s influence prior to the January 5 resolution. Furthermore, Sadr previously supported Iraq’s popular protest movement from Iran’s proxies, which see those protests as an existential threat to their interests. The U.S. strike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis changed Sadr’s calculus regarding how to pursue his desire for a withdrawal of U.S. forces, making him more amenable to working with Iran to do so.
Assessment: The scale of Friday’s anti-U.S. protest will be an important indicator of the combined influence of Sadr and Iran’s proxies, but it is imperative to distinguish between new anti-US protests and the pre-existing popular protest movement. Sadr’s support for Friday’s anti-U.S. protest is likely not enough to fully coopt the protest movement and may instead generate backlash from protesters. Clashes between different groups of protesters as well as Iran’s proxies are likely. Sadr attempted to pre-empt this conflict by calling for the merger of these separate protest movements as two branches of the same “tree of reform.” However, this framing is unlikely to convince the protesters, who are weary of political gamesmanship and often condemn Sadr as part of the same political elite that enables government corruption and Iran’s proxies. Furthermore, Sadr will not have control over Iran’s proxy militias or their supporters.
Iran’s most likely course of action (MLCOA) is to use even a limited success on Friday to bolster its efforts to expel U.S. forces via political pressure and limited and controlled military escalation. Politically, Iran will continue to portray the U.S. presence as a threat to Iraq’s sovereignty and security and will likely take further action via its supporters inside the Iraqi parliament. This effort may include forcing through a new prime minister and new legislation which suits Iran’s agenda. Militarily, Iran will likely escalate through its proxies with the intent to erode the American will to remain in Iraq and the Middle East. This will most likely include continued, discrete attacks against locations containing U.S. assets (civilian and military), such as indirect and occasional direct rocket fire on facilities that hold U.S. troops or diplomats. Iran may also utilize its proxy network in Iraq to take U.S. persons hostage, leveraging their safe return against a U.S. withdrawal. Sadr’s kinetic support is not necessary to undertake this COA, but his political support is invaluable to Iran’s efforts.
If Iran does not feel that enough progress is being made, it could escalate to the first most dangerous course of action (MDCOA): to use its proxy network and a potential Sadrist alliance to launch a coordinated set of near-simultaneous and lethal attacks against U.S. persons, forces, or diplomats in Iraq in an effort to make the political or military cost of a U.S. troop presence in the region too high for the U.S. to sustain. Iran will undertake these actions if it assesses that it cannot coerce the U.S. to leave through discrete attacks. This COA could include assaults against bases holding U.S. forces or diplomatic facilities in Baghdad or Arbil. Sadr’s support is not necessary for Iran to start down this path, but the participation of his militia groups would render this COA substantially more dangerous. Historical precedent may lead Iran and its proxies to believe that considerable U.S. casualties, hostage-taking, and assassinations of U.S. officials would force the U.S. to pull out of Iraq. The U.S. withdrew from Lebanon in 1984 following the bombing of a U.S. marine barracks and the kidnapping and subsequent killing of the CIA station chief in Beirut by likely Iranian proxies.
Alternatively or concurrently, Iran could attempt to assassinate U.S. persons. The Iranian regime regards the U.S. killing of Soleimani to be an assassination, and may order an “equivalent” assassination of a U.S. official, likely a current or former military commander or senior diplomat.
An alternate MDCOA is that Sadr or one or more of Iran’s proxies could conduct a major and independent escalation against U.S. forces, persons, or diplomats without Iranian knowledge or permission. Iraqi militia groups may be more willing or able to freelance pursuant to their own agenda, rather than to Iran’s military or diplomatic strategy, without the supervision and control of Soleimani and Muhandis. Sadr and formerly Sadrist splinters like AAH leader Qais al-Khazali have historically been less receptive to Iranian directives. Both previously operated as special groups during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and clashed with both U.S. and Iranian-proxy forces. Both may choose to target U.S. forces and personnel. This MDCOA risks further escalation of the U.S.-Iran conflict without either side deciding to kinetically escalate. Iran is likely attempting to mitigate this risk by working to establish renewed and more centralized control over its proxies.
Implications: Iran’s campaign in Iraq threatens both U.S. forces and the Iraqi popular protest movement that is demanding better governance, Iraqi sovereignty, and basic rights. The formation of an anti-U.S. Iraqi resistance front poses a significant threat, even in its preliminary stages of organization. Each of these militias is individually capable of lethal attacks on U.S. forces, as is Sadr’s movement. Together, they could pose a more dangerous and united front. Their internal differences and fractious nature mitigates, but does not eliminate, this threat. Iran’s attempt to coopt the Iraqi protest movement also threatens to undermine and discredit the pre-existing popular movement and isolate it from international recognition or support, which would itself be a victory for Iran. A coordinated effort by Iran’s militias to crush Iraq’s largely peaceful popular protest movement could also be devastating to Iraq’s civilians, especially if Sadr decreases his backing of the protest movement. Furthermore, deteriorating U.S.-Iraqi relations have already damaged the efficacy of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq. If U.S. basing privileges at Iraqi military bases are revoked, the U.S. would likely be unable to continue its counter-ISIS fight in Iraq or Syria.
Indicators: Indicators of the MLCOA would include a continuation of, and relative escalation from, the recent baseline—consistent, indirect, and discrete rocket fire at U.S. forces and diplomatic facilities that causes few or no U.S. or coalition casualties—as well as an increase in the kidnapping of U.S. persons. It would also include signs of renewed progress in negotiations over a prime minister replacement as well as other deals to introduce new legislation to the Iraqi parliament.
Possible indicators of the first, Iran-directed MDCOA include a substantial increase in direct rocket fire and U.S. casualties, which could indicate that Iran’s proxies are gearing up for greater escalation. Other indicators include signs of additional coordination between leaders of Shi’a Militia Groups, increased coordination between the Shi’a Militia Groups and the Sadrists, and relocations of PMF units. Specifically, if these groups begin to use the same name for their resistance movement, appoint a leader, or begin to make specific demands, U.S. forces and persons in Iraq should be on high alert. Previously unknown Shi’a Militia Groups popping up outside of the established Iranian proxy network are also a significant potential indicator of this COA. At least two indicators have already occurred. Reuters reported on January 4 that prior to his death, Soleimani was working to establish new proxy militia groups to conduct attacks on U.S. forces with even greater deniability. A new group calling itself Saraya Imam al-Husayn al-Istishhadiya released a video on January 5 threatening to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis.
Possible indicators of the second, militia-directed MDCOA include less cohesion between the Iranian state narrative and the public statements of Iraqi militia groups. Proxy militia leaders may begin to call on their own forces to exercise restraint, indicating that they are concerned about their subordinates operating outside of their command.
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