July 29, 2020
The UK’s ambassador in Baghdad has been threatened by Iran-backed militias on social media, in response to his call for Iraq to reject the armed groups operating in the country.
Stephen Hickey, who took up the post in Baghdad in September 2019, had warned on his personal Twitter account that “armed groups operating outside state control” are damaging Iraq’s development and operating outside the law.
He was subjected to mocked up images of his face being shared on the messaging app Telegram by Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia, doctored to appear as though smeared with blood, as well as a series of posts warning him not to interfere in the country’s affairs.
A UK Foreign Office spokesman said Britain “has long been clear in its support for Iraqi sovereignty and stability, and its position that all armed groups within Iraq should fall under the control of the Iraqi government.”
He added: “The safety of our staff is of paramount importance and we keep our security under constant review.”
The response comes as part of a wider campaign of harassment against public figures vocal in their opposition to the influence of pro-Iran militias and proxy groups in Iraq, referred to broadly as Al-Hashd Al-Shabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, founded in 2013 and with a reported 10,000 fighters to its name, is one of the more substantial militias.
The largest, Kataib Hezbollah, which has been responsible for numerous attacks on UK and US service personnel in Iraq, claims to have as many as 30,000 members.
“Despite the recent departure of British troops from Taji air base, UK diplomatic staff are still under regular threat from pro-Iranian hardline Shiite factions in Iraq,” said Evan Kohlmann, a senior analyst at security consultancy Flashpoint.
“Those factions seethe at comments from the outspoken UK ambassador in support of the Iraqi government and its efforts to end continuing rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad.”
Kataib Hezbollah is thought to have been behind the December 2019 rocket attack on a US military base that killed an American contractor, as well as the March 2020 rocket attack on Camp Taji that killed two American soldiers and one British soldier.
It was also allegedly behind the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad that set in motion a chain of events that led to the assassination in January of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.
As well as militarily, the PMF also exerts power through political allies in Iraq’s Parliament and by intimidating opponents.
Iraq’s newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has vowed to crack down on them.
In June, he ordered a raid on Kataib Hezbollah’s offices, which led to the arrest of a dozen members suspected of involvement in the US Embassy attack.