In light of the escalating US-Iranian tensions in the region, attention has turned to Iraq as the theater of war between the two sides. With both US and Iranian forces present in Iraq, the past few months have seen threats exchanged between the US administration and the mullahs’ arms in Iraq, which has become the battleground.
Iran fuels the fire
Iraqis started protesting in October 2019, delivering a message to Iran that its interventions in Iraq are the cause the deteriorating living conditions and poor economic situation in the country. The demonstrators demanded Iran to leave, which exactly what Tehran does not want. Despite the mullah regime’s attempts to crush the Iraqi protests by suppressing and killing the demonstrators, it has failed to quell the popular movement.
This prompted the Tehran to use another card – using its proxies in Baghdad to provoke and embarrass the United States in Iraq – so that the mullahs could then divert the Iraqis’ attention from Iran to the US.
The escalation between the two sides began on October 28, 2019, as Washington accused Kata’ib Hezbollah – one of Iraq’s most prominent Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias loyal to Iran – of launching 11 attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting American soldiers near the northern city of Kirkuk. The first ten attacks resulted in many Iraqi casualties, in addition to material damage. But the last attack was a turning point for Washington, as an American contractor was killed and it was the first time that 36 shells fell on one base where American soldiers are located, according to US media.
This prompted US forces to launch a series of strikes on December 29 targeting command and control facilities of Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq’s western Anbar province, killing 28 fighters and wounding 48 others. The US Defense Department announced in a statement that these strikes came in response to the militia’s attacks on military bases that host US soldiers.
Although the mullah regime denied the US accusations, it worked to transfer the battle to Iraq and to preoccupy Washington. Therefore, on December 31, 2019, two days after the Washington attacks, the PMF targeted the US embassy in Baghdad, where dozens stormed the embassy compound and set fire to gates and watchtowers, before riot police managed to drive them out to the perimeter.
In a series of tweets, US President Donald Trump accused the Iranian militias of attacking the American embassy in Baghdad, holding Iran fully responsible for any human or material losses at the embassy and confirming that Tehran would pay a heavy price for the storming of the embassy. He stressed that this is a threat, not a warning.
Trump also announced that the embassy is currently safe and that a number of American soldiers and equipment have been transferred to Baghdad to protect the embassy. This was confirmed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who announced on December 31 that the US military sent a group of Marines to Baghdad and will help to ensure the security of the embassy and its personnel. This resulted in the withdrawal of PMF supporters from the front of the embassy on January 1.
Iranian officials, as usual, denied the US accusations and President Trump’s threats regarding the storming of the embassy. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded through his Twitter page by saying that the US president’s statement that Iran is guilty is utter nonsense and that Iran has nothing to gain by this. He demanded that the Americans realize the Iraqi people are disgusted with them. In addition, Khamenei condemned the US strikes on PMF sites in Iraq, describing them as US retaliation following the PMF’s victory against ISIS.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasimi also denied the US administration’s accusations of Tehran being behind the embassy attacks. He even tried to accuse the Iraqis, saying that the Iraqi people’s protests are against Washington’s brutal attacks against Iraqi territory and that Washington is trying to attribute the protests to Iran. He also called on the US administration to reconsider its destructive policies in the region and to refrain from reacting based on wrong accounts.
Despite the Iranian denial, videos and pictures were published by Iraqi media, as well as reported by Iraqi activists on Twitter, regarding the storming of the embassy, which came after the funeral procession of Kata’ib Hezbollah fighters who died in the US strikes. The footage showed the presence of some figures belonging to the Iranian militias in Iraq, including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali and Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri, who were leading the storming of the US embassy, later joined by PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Saraya al-Khorasani (Khorasani Brigrades) leader Hamid al-Jazairi.
All this confirms that Iran is attempting to terminate the popular Iraqi protest movement, especially after its militias failed to do so. Tehran also wants to deliver a message to the Iraqis that the United States is the cause of what is happening in Iraq and that the Iraqis should fight America, not Iran.
Also, it is in Iran’s interest to use the PMF to drag the Americans into a confrontation. Tehran is aware that the United States will not enter a military confrontation with Iran, according to Trump’s statements, so it therefore wants is to exacerbate the crisis so that international parties intervene, widening the dispute so that it becomes an international issue, and then Iran can negotiate with Washington after suffering from the US sanctions.
Prospects of conflict
Iranian affairs specialist Osama al-Hitimi explained that the perception of some that the new developments in Iraq indicate the increased possibility of a war between the United States and Iran and that Iraq will be the arena of this war is far from reality. The issue of war is excluded to the utmost degree due to many reasons, including strategic, political, economic and security-wise. What is going on in Iraq is nothing more than tensions under control, as neither party intends to escalate the situation to the extent of crossing certain lines and achieving particular goals.
Hitimi pointed out in a statement to the Reference that the Iranian militia’s storming of the American embassy coincided with the escalation of the popular protest movement in Iraq, adding that it therefore cannot be excluded that Iraq is currently witnessing an Iranian attempt to terminate the political movement that has continued for three months, as the movement primarily aims to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, which has been completely subjected to the authority of Iran for more than 16 years. He added that this influence only occurred with the consent and welcome of the Americans, who used Iran in the beginning of their invasion of Iraq in 2003 in order to avoid the outbreak of an insurgency by Iraq’s Shiites.