Iraq becoming a battleground as US-Iran tensions rise

Iraq becoming a battleground as US-Iran tensions rise

Donald Trump addresses US troops at a military base in Iraq. (Reuters)

As the regional security situation has deteriorated over the last two months, Iraq fears it is becoming part of the theater of confrontation. Reflecting this concern, following the attacks on four oil transportation vessels off Fujairah on May 12, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Baghdad demanding that their country stay out of any conflict between the US and Iran. Their slogans were: “No to war” and “Yes to Iraq.”

After national elections in May last year, several different groups came together to appoint Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister. But differences among the parties have ensured that it has still not been possible to appoint the country’s defense, interior and justice ministers. Meanwhile, the nation’s problems continue to fester. Iraq’s senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, spoke out sharply on June 14, criticizing “the despicable competition for posts, the ongoing corruption, and failure to fill the acute shortages of services.”

In this fragile scenario, the last thing Iraq needs is to get embroiled in a major regional conflict.

Keeping out will not be easy. Since 2014, when US forces returned to Iraq to fight Daesh, the country has been the stage for US-Iranian competition. While the US built up the Iraqi national forces, Iran shaped a number of formidable Shiite militias, which were clubbed together in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Iraq today has about 30 militias with 125,000 members.  

One constituent of the PMU, Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, has been particularly vocal in demanding the departure of US forces from Iraq and, in May, amidst increasing regional tensions, even threatened to attack US targets. Fearing that the aggressive activities of such groups would invite swift US retaliation, the Iraqi government has affirmed that it is “responsible for protecting American interests in Iraq” and has urged all militia not to take any provocative action. And Abdul Mahdi this week issued a decree heavily curbing their powers and forcing them to further integrate into the country’s formal armed forces. They now have to pick between political or military activity.

Most militias have been more moderate, with their spokespersons stressing that the PMU will give priority to “national interests” and will only take decisions after deep thought and wide consultation.

In the face of increasingly severe sanctions, Iran has sought to strengthen its ties with Iraq.

Talmiz Ahmad

However, the US does not make things easy for the beleaguered Iraqi government. Last December, President Donald Trump visited a US military base in Anbar Province without going to Baghdad and meeting Iraqi leaders, suggesting an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. He compounded this transgression by saying in February that US troops would stay on in Iraq “to monitor” Iran, thus contradicting the official Iraqi position that the US troops were in the country only to train Iraqis to fight Daesh.

In the face of increasingly severe sanctions, Iran has sought to strengthen its ties with Iraq. It shares a long border with Iraq and, hence, it can evade sanctions more effectively. During the visit of President Hassan Rouhani to Baghdad in March, the two countries agreed to boost bilateral trade from $12 billion to $20 billion and to pursue railway projects that would link southern Iran with Basra and join Tehran and Baghdad with the Syrian coast.

As US-Iran ties deteriorated in May, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visited Baghdad and said Iran was prepared to pursue “non-aggression” pacts with its Arab neighbors. Iraqi officials used the occasion to convey their opposition to the sanctions on Iran and reject the prospect of war on that country.

Later, the Iraqi electricity minister said that Iraq depended on Iran for 4,000 megawatts of electricity supply and that the US had waived sanctions on these ties, which have considerable significance for the welfare of the Iraqi population. He also clarified that Iranian companies were continuing to work in Iraq and were being paid in Iraqi dinars, thus excluding them from the sanctions framework.

According to regional media reports, Iran is also seeking to enhance defense ties with Iraq, providing the latter with training in artillery and airborne assault, new air defense systems, and engaging in joint military exercises.

However, what is particularly worrisome for regional observers are the rocket attacks aimed at US targets in Iraq. Following the attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13, there was a spate of rocket attacks targeting the Balad Air Base, the Taji base, a base accommodating US military advisers in Mosul, and the complex housing several major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, at Burjesia, near Basra. The US believes that Iranian proxies launched these attacks to warn that any initiation of hostilities on Iran would meet with significant retaliation on its interests in Iraq.

That these rocket attacks were followed the next day by the downing of a US drone that nearly led to a major US assault on Iran suggests that, in the event of a US-Iran military confrontation, Iraq will almost certainly be pulled into the conflict.

The next war will encompass the whole region and wreak horrendous death and destruction. Never has the Middle East called for a peace process so desperately.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India.
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