In a surprise move, an Iran-linked militia in Iraq that the Pentagon said was likely responsible for a lethal drone attack on a U.S. base in Jordan over the weekend announced on Tuesday that it was suspending military operations in Iraq under pressure from the Iraqi government and from Iran.
The announcement came shortly after President Biden said that he had decided how to respond to the attack in Jordan on Sunday that left three U.S. soldiers dead, though he did not say what that response would be. His comment raised fears in Iraq about a possibly retaliatory U.S. attack on its territory.
The militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, or Brigades of the Party of God, is the largest and most established of the Iran-linked groups operating in Iraq. It has spearheaded a majority of the some 160 attacks on U.S. military installations in Iraq and Syria that have occurred since Israel began its ground operations in Gaza, acting in response to the Oct. 7 attack Hamas led from the enclave.
The U.S. military has about 2,500 troops in Iraq advising and training the Iraqi Army and about 900 in Syria, supporting the Kurdish Syrian Defense forces in their fight against the Islamic State.
Kata’ib Hezbollah is part of what is known as the Axis of Resistance, a network of Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and occasionally farther afield. (Kata’ib Hezbollah is separate from the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.)
The other two Iraqi groups that are believed to have been involved in strikes U.S. targets — Harakat al Nujaba and Sayyid Shuhada — have not announced they will halt attacks.
The leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi, said in a statement: “We announce the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces — in order to prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government.” It was the first time that the militia had publicly declared a suspension of operations.
The statement made clear that Iran had pressured the group to stop the attacks on U.S. troops and that Kata’ib Hezbollah was not happy about it. The group made a point of suggesting that it chooses its own targets and timing, rather than following Iran’s orders.
“Our brothers in the Axis, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran, they do not know how we conduct our Jihad, and they often object to the pressure and escalation against the American occupation forces in Iraq and Syria,” the statement said.
Asked about Kata’ib Hezbollah’s announcement, a Defense Department spokesman, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, said at a Pentagon briefing: “I don’t have a specific comment to provide other than actions speak louder than words.”
He added: “I’m going to refrain from editorializing on those kinds of comments after 160-plus attacks against U.S. forces.”
Interviews with Iraqi and Iranian officials close to both governments suggest that there were intensive negotiations in recent days aimed at pushing Kata’ib Hezbollah to stop its attacks.
Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, started pushing for a halt several weeks ago, according to senior government advisers. He was endeavoring to start negotiations on an eventual withdrawal of the U.S.-led international military presence in Iraq, but the American side had not wanted to negotiate while under fire, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
The United States eventually did agree to start talks without a guarantee the attacks would stop, but with a clear push in that direction.
Kata’ib Hezbollah and other groups had ignored the Iraqi government’s request to stand down, but once the attack in Jordan on Sunday took American lives, Mr. Sudani demanded a complete halt from Kata’ib Hezbollah. Mr. Sudani reached out directly to Iran, according to a military strategist for the Revolutionary Guards who works closely with the Axis groups in Iraq.
Mr. Sudani made the argument that he was trying to negotiate what Iran most wanted — to end the U.S. troop presence in Iraq — and that Kata’ib Hezbollah’s attacks were undermining his government’s ability to do so, according to the Iranian military strategist and a senior Iraqi official, who spoke anonymously to discuss private negotiations.
An Iraqi government spokesman, Hisham al-Rikabi, painted much the same picture. “Kata’ib Hezbollah’s decision came as a result of the action taken by the prime minister internally and externally, to prevent escalation, and to ensure the smooth completion of negotiations on completing the process of the international coalition’s withdrawal from Iraq,” he said.
Mr. al-Rikabi added: “We hope that all parties will listen to the government’s call in order to reduce tension and ensure that there are no hot spots of tension in the region, and in Iraq in particular.”
Involved in the negotiations were senior officials in Mr. Sudani’s government who are close to Iran, according to Iraqi and Iranian officials close to their respective government leaders. Among those involved in the negotiations were former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the leaders of two armed groups that have not targeted U.S. forces: Qais al-Khazali and Hadi al-Ameri. Participating in the talks on the Iranian side was Gen. Esmail Qaani, the leader of the Quds Force, a division of the Revolutionary Guards that works with Axis groups outside Iran.
Reporting was contributed by Falih Hassan from Baghdad, Farnaz Fassihi from New York and Eric Schmitt from Washington.