On February 26, the U.S. State Department designated Ahmed al-Hamidawi, the new secretary general of the Iraqi Shia militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), as a specially designated global terrorist (State.gov, February 26). The designation came amid ongoing tension between the United States and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias. Among the numerous militias supported by Tehran, KH is particularly unique. The militia is one of the most well-armed and organized of these groups, with an active media arm, but an intentionally opaque leadership and chain of command. The United States’ recent strategy has focused more heavily on targeting KH than any other Shia militia.
On December 28, a rocket attack on the K1 military base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq killed a U.S. contractor and wounded several U.S. soldiers. The United States quickly launched retaliatory strikes that targeted KH bases and killed dozens of its members (Arabi21, December 29).
Hundreds of KH and other militias members attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in protest. Although most, if not all, of the attackers were Iraqis, the United States administration blamed Iran directly for the attack based on the degree of influence the country has on KH and other Shia militias (Aljazeera, December 31, 2019).
The highest point in the confrontation between the United States and Iran came just days later when the U.S. military killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani and Jamal Ja’afar al-Ibrahim (a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), the founder of KH, outside Baghdad International Airport on January 3 (Al-Quds al-Araby, January 3).
The Insurgency Years
KH first became widely known in 2007 as an active Shia insurgent group that targeted U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. The group has not officially stated when exactly it was founded. Iranian strategy in post-invasion Iraq aimed to empower its Iraqi allies, namely the Shia parties, and help them dominate the government while at the same time maximizing the losses and cost of the U.S. and coalition military occupation. In 2007, that strategy faced two particular problems. First, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which dominated the Shia insurgency after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, declared a series of ceasefires and al-Sadr sponsored a political wing that joined the parliament and government. Second, the Sunni insurgency witnessed the dramatic emergence of the Sahwa (Awakening) groups that shifted sides and fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) alongside U.S. forces. Under those circumstances, KH emerged as an insurgent group almost at the same time another Iranian-supported Shia militia group, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (The league of the Righteous-AAH). In 2009, KH and its founder al-Muhandis were issued terrorist designations (Treasury.gov, July 2, 2009).
The two groups enjoyed significantly more support from Iran than the Mahdi Army received and were referred to as ‘Special Groups’ in U.S. military literature. AAH was clearly a splinter group of the Mahdi Army and its leaders were former aides of al-Sadr’s. KH also attracted members of the Mahdi Army, but its leadership included members with stronger ties to Tehran. Some lived in Iran and were members of the Iran-based armed opposition to the Saddam Hussein government before the 2003 invasion. 
In response to the collapse of large units of the Iraqi army and police in the face of the swift advance of the Sunni jihadist Islamic State (IS), Shia militias mobilized and deployed its fighters to the frontlines.
While most of the Shia militias publicized their activities and promoted their leaders as war heroes, KH continued to keep its structure and leadership secret. While the group’s founder al-Muhandis came into prominence from operating an underground organization, KH never officially announced that al-Muhandis was its leader. He was known to have always aspired to a larger role in Iraq. He was revered by all of the Shia militias as an influential commander and became the deputy leader of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—the official umbrella group that gave the Shia militias a government mandate to operate.
On March 11, two U.S. and one British soldier were killed in another rocket attack on Camp Taji, north of Baghdad (Rudaw, March 1) Although the United States blamed KH, the group did not claim responsibility for the attack. Instead, they declared that they supported it and called for those who launched it to be proud and claim responsibility. Shortly after, a new unknown group called Usbat al-Thaereen (The League of the Revolutionaries) claimed responsibility for the attack (Al-Akhbar, March 16).
Although KH declared that it opposes the United States and the coalition military presence in Iraq, it never claimed responsibility for the recent attacks. The formation of a new group that is not part of the government or PMU became a necessity for the Shia militias movement. The Shia militias do not want to further embarrass the Iraqi Shia-led government, which is under immense U.S. pressure to reign in the armed groups. Most of the leaders of the Shia militias and the locations of their camps and branches have become known in recent years. A shadowy new group, however, will not be under the same scrutiny or threat from U.S. reprisals.
Future of KH
Reports have surfaced that the United States is considering plans to completely destroy KH in the wake of the Taji attack (Al Arabiya, March 28). KH, however, is just one of several Iranian-backed Shia militias that have acquired significant political and military power in Iraq, especially after the defeat of IS. Many of those militias promote the same anti-American sentiment as KH and have declared policies that aim to expel the United States from Iraq through both violent and nonviolent means. As such, confronting this threat requires a more comprehensive U.S. strategy.
KH was one of the Shia groups that played a key role in repressing the anti-corruption protests that have engulfed Iraq since October. The group, however, pursued a misleading discourse. Like all Iranian-backed militias, KH was against the protests and accused the protesters of being sponsored by the United States, Israel, and anti-Iran Gulf countries. The group never accepted responsibility for killing protesters (almaalomah, October 29).
There have been accusations against many of KH’s leaders of orchestrating the crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters. Yet, the group alleged that it also supports the protesters’ cause and their calls for reform. Protesters have condemned KH and the United States has sanctioned the group’s leaders. The whole protest movement, however, seems to have lost momentum and failed to bring any genuine reform to the political system. KH appears to have emerged stronger from that crisis and U.S. sanctions are unlikely to weaken its leaders who operate secretly between Iraq and Iran.
The question of leadership is problematic for KH. After all, it failed to live up to its inspiration/name and form an Iraqi Shia group as successful as the Lebanese Hezbollah. KH could neither publicly present a charismatic leader like Hassan Nasrallah, nor unify the other Iraqi Shia militias into one group that dominates the military and political field like Hezbollah did in Lebanon. KH will not be easily eliminated, even in a potential large-scale U.S. military campaign. It would most likely survive, albeit in a different form, and use any losses to consolidate its position as a major component of the PMU. The militia’s position and status, however, will always depend on Iranian support for the group and its secretive leadership.
 Author’s April 3 interview with an Iraqi source who preferred to remain anonymous.