Tensions between Iraq and the United States are escalating after Washington gave the green light for its forces to respond to attacks launched by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias on U.S. military bases in the country.
After the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Oct. 7, the Iraqi armed group “Islamic Resistance in Iraq,” believed linked to Iranian-backed militias, has carried out drone and rocket attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for U.S. support to Israel in the Gaza conflict.
TIT FOR TAT ATTACKS
According to the U.S. Pentagon, as of Dec. 12, U.S. troops have been targeted over 90 times in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17.
In the beginning, the U.S. military did not immediately respond to the Iraqi Shiite militias’ attacks to avoid being dragged into another trouble in the Middle East.
Later, under their relentless attacks, the U.S. forces conducted on Nov. 21 an airstrike by an AC-130 gunship against militiamen responsible for launching a missile attack on U.S. and Coalition personnel in Ayn al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, according to a statement by the U.S. Central Command.
On Nov. 22, a U.S. aircraft conducted precision strikes in the Jurf al-Nasr area, south of Baghdad, killing eight members of the Iraqi government-backed paramilitary forces of Hashd Shaabi and wounding several others.
On Dec. 3, another U.S. aircraft bombarded Hashd Shaabi positions in Iraq’s northern province of Kirkuk, killing five more paramilitary fighters.
In retaliation, an unknown Iraqi armed group fired rockets on Dec. 8, which landed near the U.S. embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, although without causing casualties.
“AMERICA TO GET OUT OF IRAQ”
Following the U.S. attacks, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani declared the U.S. move as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and an attempt to destabilize its internal security situation, stressing they are a clear violation of the international coalition’s mission, which is to fight the Islamic State (IS) militants on Iraqi soil.
Shortly after the attack near the U.S. embassy, al-Sudani held a phone talk with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, reminding the U.S. not to respond unilaterally without Iraq’s approval while reiterating his government’s commitment to protecting diplomatic missions. Austin stressed that the U.S. reserves the right to act in self-defense when attacked.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s armed groups have demanded U.S. forces leave their country, vowing to wage a war against the U.S.
Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization affiliated with the Hashd Shaabi forces, said in a statement that the presence of the U.S.-led coalition “will lead to more Iraqi bloodshed and confuse the security situation,” calling for the immediate departure of U.S. forces and all international coalition forces from Iraq.
Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is part of the Hashd Shaabi forces, also said in a statement that the U.S. airstrikes “will not go unpunished and requires expanding targeting of the circle of American interests.”
Akram al-Kaabi, Secretary-General of the Hezbollah al-Nujaba Movement in Iraq, another Iran-backed group, called for a “declaration of war” against the United States and its expulsion from Iraq.
In a statement, Al-Kaabi stressed that any form of U.S. presence in Iraq, whether as combat forces, advisors or technicians, is considered “hostile and unacceptable.”
“America needs to get out of Iraq,” former senior Pentagon advisor Douglas Macgregor said Saturday on X, formerly Twitter, noting that U.S. troops in Iraq are “sitting targets.”
“What are we there for? To conceal the fact that we failed in Iraq?” he questioned, stressing that “Iraq was an immense strategic disaster, we created chaos.”
Sabah al-Sheikh, an Iraqi political analyst, believes that the deadly U.S. airstrikes opened the door to people questioning the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. While Iraqi authorities have repeatedly declared the U.S. forces were at the invitation of the Iraqi government to train the Iraqi security forces to fight IS militants, these forces no longer have a combat mission in the country.
The weak stance of Arab and Islamic states toward the deadly Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip paved the way for armed groups to confront Israel and protect the rights of the Palestinians, al-Sheikh said.
“The message of the armed groups’ attacks is clear: if you, Americans, want us to stop the attacks on your bases, you have to stop the war in Gaza,” al-Sheikh said.
The United States’ hegemonic policies in the Middle East are unpopular with the public. There is a strong anti-American sentiment in many countries in the region, especially in Iraq, which eventually forced the Obama administration to announce its withdrawal of forces in 2011, said Liao Baizhi, Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
“However, the United States still has some 2,500 troops in Iraq, so Iraqi Shiite militias keep attacking American bases and asking them to leave. The outbreak of a new round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exacerbated the situation,” Liao added.
The statements of al-Amiri and other armed group leaders about opposing the presence of the U.S.-led coalition on Iraqi soil may not be easy to apply, said al-Sheikh, noting, “It is more like brinkmanship.”
The situation is sensitive for the leading Iranian-backed political parties and armed groups as they don’t want to push the U.S. forces too far, he said.
At present, Iraqi Shiite militias harass U.S. military targets using rockets and drones while the United States focuses on the Palestinian-Israeli battlefield, unwilling to engage in multi-front operations, Liao said.
Liao added that both sides are restrained and unwilling to get into a larger-scale conflict.
“The excessive military actions …could lead to a civil war or at least internal conflict. Such a scenario could disrupt anti-IS efforts in the country and may create a security vacuum that IS terrorist militants could exploit,” al-Sheikh told Xinhua.
The biggest uncertainty in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that the so-called resistance forces, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen, may escalate the conflict due to a miscalculation or accidental fire, which will trigger regional chaos and even involve Iran and Gulf oil-producing countries, Liao said.
This is the most dangerous scenario and one that the parties involved are keen to avoid, Liao noted.