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Who are the Iranian-backed militias attacking U.S. forces in Jordan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A group calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has taken responsibility for a drone attack that killed three U.S. service members on a base in Jordan near the Syrian border. The same group has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks on the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria since the war in Gaza began three months ago. To talk more about this group, NPR's Jane Arraf is with us from Amman, Jordan. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What is the Islamic Resistance in Iraq? And who are they resisting?

ARRAF: Well, the second part of that question is a lot easier to answer than the first part. Their stated goal is to attack U.S. and Israeli targets, to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq and Syria and to support the militant Palestinian group Hamas in the war in Gaza. Essentially, as regarding what it is, it's a coalition of groups. It's not new but kind of rebranded, all with the same purpose and almost all believed to be funded, armed and, in some cases, directed by Iran. Iran denies this, saying the militias are autonomous.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about some of those groups that make up this collective?

ARRAF: Yeah, they generally don't disclose which militias are part of it. But one of the biggest Kata'ib Hezbollah, Hezbollah Brigades, made clear recently that it was involved in attacks claimed by the resistance. The U.S. in November targeted Hezbollah headquarters near Baghdad in retaliation, an attack that's prompted the Iraqi government to ask U.S. forces to leave the country. And worth noting there's some history there. The founder of Kata'ib Hezbollah was an Iraqi militia leader known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He was also a senior Iraqi government security figure. The U.S. killed him in a drone strike, along with Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, four years ago in Baghdad, which is even more reason for the group's determination to drive out U.S. forces.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the origins of these groups and where they come from.

ARRAF: Well, we really have to go back to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. And in getting rid of dictator Saddam Hussein and disbanding all security forces, all Iraqi security forces, the U.S. paved the way with the security vacuum for the rise of al-Qaida, the militant Sunni group, and Iran-backed militias that stepped in to protect Iraqi Shias and fill that gap. Iraq has - had been an enemy of Iran, but after 2003, Iraqi political, religious and militia leaders in exile in Iran were free to come back. And they did. Under the political system set up by the U.S., the prime minister has traditionally been Shia. And many of them are backed by Iran. So fast forward to 2014, when ISIS captured parts of Iraq and Syria, and the Shia militias were essential to fighting them. But when ISIS was defeated in Syria in 2019 with the help of the U.S., the militias stayed. And now a lot of them are officially part of Iraqi security forces.

SHAPIRO: That seems like an unusual arrangement. Practically speaking, what does it mean?

ARRAF: Well, it is as odd as it sounds, particularly when it comes to the U.S. Iraq is officially an ally of the U.S., which was responsible for a lot of the military training of Iraqi forces. The two countries fight ISIS together still. But inside the Iraqi security forces, the government - on the government payroll are militia brigades that were incorporated into official forces in 2019. So officially, Ari, all security forces answer to the commander in chief, Iraq's prime minister. But in reality, some of the most powerful groups answer more to Iran.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jane Arraf, thank you for your reporting.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.

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