In Rudaw

Rogue ‘Katyusha cells’ are a threat to Iraqi progress

Iraq’s capital is constantly pestered by attacks using Katyusha rockets, which has only increased since January, when the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani brought tensions to a boiling point.

The tactics and organization of these “Katyusha cells” is similar to the insurgent groups seen in Iraq’s chaotic years from 2007-2011. They exploit gaps in the security services to move in the shadows, transporting weapons through Baghdad, launching strikes by night, before disappearing into the shadows without a trace. They employ the element of surprise, and even a loose coordination between one another, not unlike gangs — but their expertise also hints at professional military training, experience, and support from outside backers. They are also an enigma — they have no spokesperson, no known leader, nor even a historical background in Iraq.

The Katyusha cells have a variety of new names that evoke the Shiite resistance, according to how they self-identify on their official channels, on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp. Those groups are called Usbat al-Thaireen Ashab al-Kahaf , Qabdhat al-Huda, Saraya Shuhada Thawar Ashreen al-Thani, and al-Tha’r’ al-Mohandis.

Taken together, they have so far claimed 37 armed operations, which were all recorded by Iraqi Security Forces between January 6th and June 18th. These attacks targeted United States and International Coalition forces, as well as diplomatic missions in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

While their tactics have been compared to those of the “resistance factions,” formally known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) – but officially, they have no relation, according to former spokesman of the MP Ahmed Al-Asadi, who said in a talk show with Dr. Nabeel Jasim that the so-called “Katyusha cells” are acting on their own. Instead, he insisted, such uncontrollable groups tarnish the PMFs’ image and could even constitute a threat to the lives of their leaders.

These groups have no intention of ceasing attacks targeting Washington’s interests in Iraq. Their only apparent strategy is to coax the US into retaliating, in hopes of stoking public discontent against the American presence in Iraq.

Iraq’s intelligence have a good idea about who is behind these attacks, especially about “Usbat al-Thaireen,” which has been effective in targeting US forces in Iraq, and functioned to help the PMFs escape the consequences of attacks by committing them under another name, thereby helping avoid more internal divisions among them.

An official stance of disapproval from the PMFs and the Iraqi government towards these attacks makes the US inclined to take military retaliation off the table to avoid public discontent, but it may turn to more light footprint options to respond, for instance, drone attacks.

Katyusha cells have increased their attacks on Baghdad’s airport and Green Zone as well as Camp Taji base, in clear defiance of a firm stance by the Joint Command threatening rogue groups with prosecution, backed by a new intelligence cell formed by Prime Minister Kadhimi a day after sitting down to talks with the US.

The recklessness of these rogue groups has several causes. Many Iraqi armed groups are returning from Syria after fighting in support of Damascus’s government due to lack of financial support from Iran, especially after the events of January 3rd has given fertile ground to Shiites factions to thrive in south and central Iraq claiming vengeance against America.

A weak central government and state institutions combined with a weakness of political will in Baghdad to confront the clandestine rebellion tests the patience of the International Coalition to see what Kadhimi’s cabinet can accomplish.

The cacophony of a deteriorating economic situation, political and party conflicts, and the uncontrolled spread of arms among militants has drowned the voice of moderate thinking. The same Islamic parties who called for solutions during Abdul-Mahdi’s governing and resignation in the face of the October protests, now call for violence in the name of “resistance gains” against human rights and democracy principles.

Still, the government hesitates to take firm legal and security action against those cells, thus encouraging them to go further in their provocative operations. They have now expanded their targeted areas and called for wider and more radical actions. They focused on Baghdad and threatened Iraqi forces working with US, NATO and IC forces.

The scenario of the “Katyusha cells” can play out in a number of ways, and almost all stand to negatively impact Kadhimi’s term in government. This situation will be become even more complicated if these cells are discovered to have Iranian or Lebanese commanders working within them. And it will certainly have a negative impact on the harmony among Shiites political parties and armed factions that denounce the work of these cells, and could eventually spiral into direct armed clashes between them, if especially if these cells were controlled externally.

Without a doubt, it will not be America but Iraqi that suffers the greatest share of damage that will result from this rebellion. When the foundations of the state are based on quotas, security will always come second. Such a status quo is an inevitability when ethnic, sectarian, and political affiliations overcome national affiliation. Source