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Iraq: Battleground for the US, Iran
Iraqi supporters of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces carry the coffins of Kata’ib Hizbullah commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 4, the day after they and eight others were killed in a US drone attack. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP via Getty Images)

Iraq: Battleground for the US, Iran

The new government in Baghdad is seeking to exert control over pro-Tehran Shi’ite militias, but there are some in the country that view Washington as no less hostile

At least one Iraqi analyst is concerned that that the country is becoming a battleground for Iran and the United States, citing weekend rocket fire that apparently targeted the US Embassy in Baghdad – wounding a child in the process – with reports that the Americans fired back with at least one missile of their own.

Some reports cite a US-made Patriot air defense missile, with a security source in Iraq saying it downed an incoming projectile outside the American legation’s walls.

The injured child was in a residence near the edge of Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, home of the US, Saudi and other embassies, as well as Iraqi government offices.

“A Katyusha missile was launched from Ali Al-Saleh area, north of Baghdad, toward the Green Zone, but landed on a house next to the zone and damaged it,” Iraqi security forces said in a statement.

Fadel Abu Raghef, an Iraqi analyst and security expert, told The Media Line that such attacks worsen the security situation in Baghdad and put Iraq in a difficult position.

“These attacks are causing a crisis in Baghdad’s relations in the region and internationally,” Abu Raghef said.

These attacks are causing a crisis in Baghdad’s relations in the region and internationally

Previous rocket and mortar attacks directed at the US Embassy in the Iraqi capital and at Iraqi military bases housing US soldiers have been blamed on Kata’ib Hizbullah, one of a number of so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, which are Iraqi Shi’ite militias that are believed to take their orders from Tehran.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Kata’ib Hizbullah, was killed on January 3 outside Baghdad’s international airport in a US drone strike that also killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general.

The events this past weekend are being linked to Iraqi political divisions over the conflict between Iran and the US, according to Abu Raghef.

“Iraq has become a zone for disagreement and conflict between these two camps,” he said.

Iraq has become a zone for disagreement and conflict between these two camps

“I believe that Iraq is committed to the strategic framework agreements concluded in 2009 [with the United States], so it must protect all diplomatic missions, both military and civilian,” he added.

Of Iraq’s three main population groups – Kurds, Sunni Muslims and majority Shi’ite Muslims – the first two are closely aligned in favoring the strategic framework agreements and a US presence in the country, as are some small Shi’ite political blocs, he said.

“There’s a rift in the eastern camp, Iran’s loyalists in Iraq – among political blocs, party leaders [and] executive and legislative bodies, which created the division in the Iraqi political stream,” he explained.

Abu Raghef maintains that these differences occasionally result in operations similar to the weekend missile attacks, adding that they “affect the American embassy or one of the American bases in the country or even Iraqi bases, where Americans are.”

The US has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq that played an instrumental role in liberating major cities from Islamic State. In May of last year, visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi leaders that if they failed to exercise more control over the pro-Iran militias, Washington would respond with force.

Hazem al-Shmary, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, told The Media Line that the weekend attacks reflect an uptick since the government arrested 14 members of a cell linked to Kata’ib Hizbullah two weeks ago in southern Baghdad. The goal was “to prevent a terrorist act against state sites,” the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said in a statement.

“Thirteen members were released following certain understandings with the government,” Shmary said. “[Kata’ib] Hizbullah said they were jihadists working with the Popular Mobilization Forces.”

Shmary believes it is part of an effort by the new government to gain a measure of hegemony over the pro-Iran militias “given that the previous government didn’t dare to control [them].”

This demonstrates that exerting control is not impossible, he said, although “it will definitely cause problems for the government, as stability requires a single ruling body that controls weaponry in the country, something Iraq lacks.

“The divisions in the Iraqi government over the matter have gone unpublicized,” he explained, referring to shifting allegiances, resignations and assassinations, as well as perceptions of corruption and anti-government protests that still take place.

“The conflict,” he said, “is now between the Iraqi government, with its new, more aggressive approach toward armed groups controlling its territory,” and those in Iraq who have noted with distaste the reported use a Patriot missile at the US Embassy, which they see as “a violation” of Iraqi sovereignty and something to “be deterred.”

On July 4, the first deputy speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Hassan al- Kaabi, criticized the embassy what reportedly test-firing the new defensive weapon.

“It’s a new, provocative step that violates all international laws and diplomatic norms, and another challenge added to its… provocations and illegal actions in Iraq,” he said in a statement, calling on the government to prevent this further use of such weapons.

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