Last April the Kuwaiti government started building a new port on Boubyan Island near the marine border with Iraq. The port, named Mubarak al-Kabir (Grand Mubarak) after the founder of the Kuwaiti al-Sabah ruling dynasty, triggered the latest crisis between Baghdad and Kuwait, with the port development causing both official and public anger in Iraq. The Iraqi argument states that port activity in the Khor Abdullah channel shared with Iraq will block the channel’s shipping lanes leading to a nearby Iraqi port (The National [Abu Dhabi], July 18). Kuwait rejects the Iraqi argument, claiming that the establishment of the new port is a matter of national sovereignty as it is being built solely on Kuwaiti territory.
One of the angriest Iraqi reactions to the planned port development came from the Shi’a insurgent group Kata’ib Hezbollah fi al-Iraq (Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq – KH). The group issued a statement on its website calling on Kuwait to stop building the port and threatened to target the workers in the project (Kataibhizbollah.org, July 16).
There has been a noticeable surge in the activities of KH recently. The group has claimed responsibility for many of the recent attacks against U.S. forces. Statements from the movement indicate that most of their attacks are launched with rockets targeting U.S. bases in central and southern Iraq (al-Joumhouria [Beirut], June 10; al-Alam TV [Tehran], July 26).
KH is also remembered for its success in hacking the communications systems of U.S. drones. KH had used low-cost Russian-made software called SkyGrabber to intercept video from U.S. Predator drones. KH claimed that it had been hacking the system since mid-2008, however, U.S. officials only admitted the penetration in late 2009 (al-Akhbar, January 2, 2010; Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2009; see also Terrorism Monitor, April 12).
While the public and political debate is escalating in Iraq over the issue of whether to agree to an extension of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, the KH has taken a strong stance against the extension. Months before the other Iraqi parties started debating the issue, KH had already threatened to intensify its attacks on U.S. forces if the complete withdrawal scheduled for the end of 2011 was delayed (kataibhizbollah.org, December 27, 2010).
Along with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (The Groups of the Righteous- AAH), KH is one of several splinter groups of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army – JAM). The group is widely believed to have strong and direct links with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite al-Quds Force. Although KH has created its own website where it publishes its statements, videos and propaganda, not much is known about its leadership. KH has, however, long been linked with the controversial Iraqi former militia leader and MP Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (a.k.a. Jamal Ja’far al-Ibrahim), though the MP denies any link to this group or any other insurgent party. Al-Muhandis was designated as a threat to peace and stability in Iraq by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2009 (in part due to his alleged close ties to Iran’s Quds Force), but his seat in parliament provides him with complete immunity under the Iraqi constitution.  Al-Muhandis was accused of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the French and American embassies in Kuwait City, as well as having a role in an assassination attempt on the Kuwaiti Amir in 1985. Al-Muhandis denies the accusations but typically talks about Kuwait with contempt. In an interview last year, al-Muhandis claimed that the Kuwaiti government had handed a number of his close relatives over to Saddam Hussein’s government and that these individuals were later executed (al-Akhbar, April 12, 2010; for al-Muhandis, see also Terrorism Monitor, March 4, 2010).
The KH has also been tied to Ahmad al-Shaibani, the former spokesman of Muqtada al-Sadr, but al-Shaibani denied such involvement in an interview from the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he stayed with al-Sadr (Almowallem.net, November 29, 2009).
Unlike the AAH, which had been subject to severe criticism and condemnation by al-Sadr, KH and the Sadr movement are on good terms. In spite of the fact that the KH was established by elements that abandoned al-Sadr’s leadership and formed their own organization, the anti-American Shi’a cleric has always had a friendly approach when dealing with and talking about the KH.
The group is one of the few Iraqi Shi’a factions to clearly declare its allegiance to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This allegiance puts the group closer to the ideological line followed by the Lebanese Hezbollah. KH’s logo is almost a replica of the Lebanese party’s emblem.
Like most other Iraqi insurgent groups, Shi’a and Sunni alike, KH is rarely involved in regional disputes between the Iraqi government and the neighbouring countries, but the Mubarak port issue presents an ideal opportunity for the KH, a small but effective Shi’a group, to appeal to wider Iraqi constituencies. The dispute stirs a national resentment against Kuwait based on a lingering Iraqi belief that Boubyan Island is properly part of Iraq. The new direction in KH’s policy might bring it a wave of popularity and help it to build credibility around its claim that it is a national movement with no sectarian agenda.
Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades claim to have obtained three surface-to-surface missiles from an Iraqi weapons depot after the fall of Saddam Hussein which it intends to use against South Korean construction workers in Boubyan and government facilities in Kuwait City if the port project goes ahead (Arab Times, August 15). An advisor to the Iraqi minister of defence revealed that the local government in the southern province of Basrah asked for Baghdad’s aerial support to locate rockets deployed by KH in the area (Alazma.com, July 20).
Iraqi MP Kazim al-Shemmari, a member of the Iraqiya White Party (formed last August by a group of MPs defecting from the Iraqiya List – see al-Sumaria, March 8), warned Kuwait on August 12 that “there are armed brigades in Iraq which can invade Kuwait entirely without permission from the government, which in such incidents would not bear responsibility for the Brigades’ actions since they are militant groups.” The MP went on to suggest that tensions between the two countries could be eased if Kuwait dropped its compensation claims for damage done in the 1990-1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and began to allow Kuwaiti investment in Iraq (Kuwait Times, August 14).
Whether Baghdad and Washington agree to update the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to extend the U.S. military presence beyond the end of this year, Iraq’s Hezbollah has already entered a new phase in its operational history. Characteristic of this phase is a larger role in anti-American attacks in Iraq combined with greater involvement in regional issues designed to boost its influence in Iraqi domestic politics.
1. U.S. Treasury Department, Press Release TG-195, July 2, 2009. For a profile of al-Muhandis see the author’s article in Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2011.