Iraq: The next misjudgment by the United States
Iranian ability to use militias to attack the American embassy, with Iraqi support, made it clear how much power Iran has in Iraq
The author of the article is Thomas Pany. Thomas Pany studied political science with Kurt Sontheimer at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, plus modern history and Semitic studies. The original article has been published in Telepolis. Translation and editing by Defenseweek’s team.
Iran is held responsible for the violent protests at the US embassy in Baghdad with arson. Some things are overlooked
The easiest explanation of the current escalations in Iraq can be found in lines like these: “Iran’s ability to use militias to attack the American embassy, with Iraqi support, made it clear how much power Iran has in Iraq.” Different flags can be seen in the photo with which the New York Times illustrates the cited heading for their article.
The Iraqi flag in the center of the picture is very prominent. To the left of this, a group of young men climbing over a wall of the US embassy in Baghdad shows yellow and green flags referring to militias belonging to al-Hashd asch-Sha’bi (German: People’s Mobilization Forces). An Iraqi flag is waving here too. On the right edge of the picture you can see a US flag crossed out in black, which is definitely not supposed to convey any sign of sympathy.
Why look at the flags? Because he draws attention to contradictions to the reading of the American newspaper, which takes a certain degree of clarity. The opposite thesis is that the protests at the US embassy that resulted in an attack on its territory and an arson attack are anti-US protests. And this is not adequately explained with the activity of Iranian string pullers, but rather channeled through propaganda.
It is striking, observers who are critical of the United States’ statement of events in recent days, that media reported “Iraqi protests” in the weeks before when they turned against Iranian institutions or targets. As soon as protests are directed against the US presence and its influence, the language regulation is that it is not “Iraqi protests”, but an action covered by Iran.
A US retaliatory strike
From the other point of view of the events, as can be seen in the example of Belgian journalist Elijah J. Magnier, the “incident” that underlies the riots at the US embassy at the turn of the year is described differently. It is about the attack by the US Air Force on targets in Iraq last Sunday evening, which the US government portrays as retribution. The target was named the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, which the US leadership had previously blamed for a missile attack in which an American was killed. The militia itself denies that it is responsible for the fatal rocket attack.
It wasn’t a regular U.S. Army soldier, but a member of a private security company. There is no need to explain further that the death of a US citizen as a result of an attack by the militia, which has made no secret of its long-standing animosity towards the US, is sensitive to the US leadership. The US military was beginning to react with a hard blow.
This is then backed up by a lineup, which now assumes the “taunts” between the US military and the Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, of which in the past it was often read, on the part of the Kata’ib Hezbollah concrete attacks. If one believes this line-up, the US military had a solid reason to attack the militia.
The above-mentioned journalist Magnier criticizes the attacks as propaganda. On the other hand, other publications also note that the Kata’ib Hezollah is aggressive, which in many places is said to have closer links to Iran’s revolutionary guards.
For the assessment of the events of the past few days, however, it is equally important: First, the retaliatory attack by the United States did not aim at the location where the missile attack, which was fatal to the American, but at a base in Qaim over 100 kilometers away (see, for example, the overview map in the New York Times), where secondly not only Kata’ib Hezbollah militias were fatally hit, but also other members of the Iraqi security forces (who may have been hit even more than Kata’ib Hezbollah militia members). According to journalist Magnier, members of the Iraqi army and Iraqi police are among the victims.
The US attack triggered the protests, which led to an aggressive attack on the embassy in Baghdad. The statement, which leads to a clear blame for Iran, is too simple, too narrow and partisan. It only leads to further hardening in the front between the United States and Iran because it creates a mood.
It should be noted that Iran not only responds defensively to the US “maximum pressure” strategy, but also has a more aggressive strategy up its sleeve. It emphasizes not only that they will resist sanctions and the economic war and consider evasive maneuvers and work on them, but also that they themselves have military options to hit the United States sensitively – for which the U.S. military presence in Iraq and neighboring Syria actually does Set goals. Iran does not act harmlessly.
But the US attack on Sunday evening also shows that the US military is being rough-headed. In the US administration there have long been opponents of the al-Hashd al-Shah’bi militias who see this as only an extended arm of the leadership in Tehran. This is a condensed view that is being used politically aggressively, as illustrated by a Twitter posting by U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo. He speaks of Iranian terrorists, and he claims to place no value on the accuracy of his images.
The USA itself showed that there is another practical, pragmatic approach to the Shiite militias in Iraq when they fought together with these militias as ground forces against IS in Iraq.
And it is also the case that the fight against IS in Iraq, which was launched with much greater intensity in 2014 after Baghdad was in danger, only led to the United States again having a considerable troop presence in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government could have. The formation of the Shiite people’s mobilization forces also took place this year – following an appeal by the influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is not a representative of Iranian interests but represents an independent Iraq.
A special political playing field
The al-Hashd al-Sha’bi militias are part of the Iraqi security forces. Steam hammer policy – with demands for targeted killings – does not lead to viable solutions. The US government will not get far when it comes to dissolving the al-Hashd al-Sha’bi militias, and that is certainly not only due to Iran, but to Iraqi interests. The U.S. military presence in Iraq is also at stake. In the current climate, corresponding demands are the order of the day.
Iraq has been a very special “political playing field” between Iran and the United States for years, where both are trying to exert their influence. This can be seen every time a new government is formed in Baghdad. The executive head of government, al-Mahdi, will soon be replaced. It will be interesting to see what political art both influential powers, in conjunction with the Iraqi politically powerful forces and political figures, are able to give the country a chance to free itself from the tricky current situation.
The protests that have been going on in the country for many weeks have their main trigger not in the politically fueled confrontation between the United States and Iran, but in economic hardships, corruption and other dysfunctionalities that are better addressed together.