Hamdi Malik is an Associate Fellow with the Washington Institute, specializing in Shia militias. Hamdi is the coauthor of the Institute's 2020 study "Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces."
Allocation of Iran-provided drones to an exclusively Kataib Hezbollah-commanded units provides a clear link between Iran, KH and drone operations.
On June 26, 2021, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) commission (Hayat al-Hashd al-Shabi) staged a military parade at Camp Ashraf / Abu Muntadhar al-Muhammadawi Camp, in the Iraqi province of Diyala. During the parade the PMF displayed various types of (mainly Iran-made) weaponry and equipment. Military drones, including the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) Mohajer 6, were among these new weapons (Figure 1).
Drones appear exclusively linked to KH units of the PMF
During the parade, video shows the Mohajer 6 and all the other drones were paraded exclusively by Kataib Hezbollah-controlled units of the PMF, namely the PMF’s Intelligence (Istikhabarat) Directorate and the al-Jazeera Operation Command (JOC, orQeyadat Amaliyat al-Jazeera).
Strengthening Kataib Hezbollah's connection with the JOC, the only PMF units identified as being within the JOC are PMF brigades 45, 46, and 47 -- comprising all three KH brigades in the PMF.
On June 29, the Telegram account associated with JOC posted an exclusive video of the drones displayed in PMF’s parade, accompanied by a song with the lyrics: “this is the son of Kataib [Hezbollah]”.
More evidence for JOC’s possession of drones emerges from the social media accounts of certain KH figures. One high profile KH account published a photograph of the parade with the caption: “the al-Jazeera Operational Command, 45, 46 and 47 [PMF brigades] in the parade”. In this post, soldiers with signature KH attire are seen next to a Mohajer 6 (Figure 2).
The al-Jazeera Operations Command and Kataib Hezbollah
The JOC’s area of operations mirrors KH's special area of responsibility for the Syrian border -- the so-called "land bridge" between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. (Of note, U.S. and other airstrikes targeting KH and drone sites have fallen almost entirely within this area - at the Qaim end or the Jurf as-Sakr end.) The JOC area comprises:
The large Jurf as-Sakr base complex, which encompasses numerous depopulated rural towns and villages seized by the PMF in 2014-2015 and developed into a military and economic canton under the exclusive control of KH. This area touches on numerous military industrial sites, some of which have been repurposed by KH for rocket and explosive production, testing and storage.
A security zone in which KH is not the only ground-holding unit but where KH has seniority, that stretches west to Nukhayb (on routes to Saudi Arabia and Syria), northwest to Rutba, Akashat and Qaim, and then back down the Euphrates to Amirat Fallujah and lands north of Lake Rezazza. The east bank of the Euphrates appears to be used to bring rocket cells to the environs of Al-Asad.
Interestingly, KH's JOC overlaps another PMF operations command -- the Anbar Operations Command headed by Qasem Muslih. JOC’s statements on social media usually end with the following hashtags: #Hayat al-Hashd al-Shabi and #Qeyadat Amaliyat al-Jazeera, indicating affiliation to the PMF but omitting mention of Anbar Command (Figure 3).
Exploiting the links between Iran, KH, JOC and drones
A subject that requires further research is what this layering means: why is an additional overlapping command (and the attendant costs to Iraq) necessary, what level of the PMF does JOC answer to, what unique authorities does JOC have? Iraqi officials, politicians, media and protestors might well ask these questions. Is JOC has a special mission, what is it, and who authorized it?
If any of the drone types shown in the parade (or drones with technical similarities) are used to attack targets in side Iraq or Syria, there is credible evidence to support a Kataib Hezbollah nexus via the PMF Intelligence Directorate or al-Jazeera Operations Command. The Sahab drones (Figure 4) shown on June 26 do appear to have strong similarities to the U.S.-named KAS-04 fixed-wing drone systems used to attack U.S. bases on April 14 (Erbil), May 8 (Al-Asad), May 11 (Kurdistan), and June 6 (Al-Asad again).
Ergo, KH has implicated itself in these attacks, and also demonstrated a connection between the PMF and the attacks (via the ownership of such drones by the PMF Intelligence Directorate or al-Jazeera Operations Command). International partners should seek to learn how the PMF procured the drones. If via the Government of Iraq (which is unlikely), then Iraq may have violated an arms embargo and purchased drones from sanctioned entities controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
If the PMF directly received these arms from Iran, this would still be a violation of the arms embargo by the Iraqi state, since the PMF is legally an organ of the Iraqi state under the 2016 Law of the Hashd al-Shaabi. Moreover, if a PMF unit were to purchase such illegal arms without informing the Iraqi government, then this would also be a significant violation of the legal chain of command, punishable under the Iraqi law.