Will Israel-Hamas war in Gaza drag Iraq back into quagmire of conflict?

Analysis Will Israel-Hamas war in Gaza drag Iraq back into quagmire of conflict?
Iraqis carry placards and wave the Palestinian flag during a protest in Baghdad, October 20, 2023, to express their support of the Palestinian people amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Palestinian groups. (AFP)
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Updated 31 October 2023
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Will Israel-Hamas war in Gaza drag Iraq back into quagmire of conflict?

Will Israel-Hamas war in Gaza drag Iraq back into quagmire of conflict?
  • American troops in Iraq and Syria have already come under militia attack, prompting retaliation
  • PM Al-Sudani has condemned attacks, but analysts question his ability to rein in the militias

IRBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: With its coffers swelled by high oil prices and its politicians laying enmities aside, Iraq looked all set to enjoy a period of stability not seen in decades. However, the Israel-Hamas war that erupted in early October could undo this modest progress, especially if it inflames the sensitive regional situation and escalates into a wider conflict.

Various Iran-backed militias across the Middle East have threatened to attack American interests in the region if Washington becomes openly involved in Israel’s ground war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. These militias have already attacked bases hosting American troops in Iraq and Syria with rockets and drones in recent days.

In an analysis for the Arab Center Washington DC, Rend Al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the US, wrote: “In the space of just over two weeks, Israel’s war on Gaza has upended Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani’s year-long careful balancing of Iraq’s foreign relations and his efforts to maintain stability in Iraq.”

The US has ordered the departure of its “non-emergency” personnel from Iraq and warned Americans not to travel to the country due to the elevated threat level. The UK has also temporarily withdrawn staff from its embassy in Baghdad and advised Britons against all travel to Iraq, aside from strictly essential trips to Iraqi Kurdistan.




US Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets, attached Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8, prepare for flight operations on the flight deck of the world’s largest aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN) 78 in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, on October 13, 2023. (AFP)

An estimated 2,500 US troops are at present based in Iraq under authorization from Baghdad, advising and training Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their ongoing fight against Daesh. Another 900 are deployed in northeast Syria, partnered with local Kurdish-led forces in their own fight against remnants of the extremist group.

Since Oct. 17, US troops have come under rocket and drone attack at Iraq’s western Ain Al-Asad airbase, Iraqi-Kurdistan’s Harir airfield, and southern Syria’s Al-Tanf garrison. Twenty-one US personnel suffered “minor injuries,” but were able to promptly resume duties, while one civilian contractor died after suffering a cardiac incident during one of these attacks.

On Thursday, the US launched “precision self-defense strikes” against two facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its local affiliates. Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, described the strikes as a response to “a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups.”

These groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, and others, have threatened to step up attacks if Israel launches a major ground war against Hamas in Gaza, increasing the risk of US troops being severely injured or even killed and raising the possibility of the US military retaliating more forcefully. Such an escalation could potentially ignite an uncontrollable conflagration that could plunge Iraq back into chaos and war.

Al-Sudani has condemned the recent attacks on US troops in Iraq, branding them “unacceptable,” and has ordered state security forces to pursue the perpetrators.




An Iraqi boy carries a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a protest in Baghdad, October 20, 2023, to express their support of the Palestinian people amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Palestinian groups. (AFP)

Many of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq are part of the country’s state-sanctioned paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, some of whose leaders are in Al-Sudani’s government. Despite this, Al-Sudani has little to no control over these armed groups.

“Reports are that he (Al-Sudani) warned the pro-Iran groups that if they get directly involved in Gaza, the US and Israel would retaliate against them in Iraq,” Joel Wing, author of the blog, Musings on Iraq, told Arab News. “Other than that, he is powerless to constrain them.”

Indeed, shortly after the Israel-Hamas war began, Iraqi politician Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the Iran-linked Badr Organization, which constitutes a large part of the PMF, said: “If they (the US) intervene, we would intervene ... we will consider all American targets legitimate.”




Iraqi forces and Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, in western Anbar province, on the Syrian border as they fight against remnant pockets of Daesh on November 1, 2017. (AFP)

Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, similarly believes Al-Sudani’s government would “largely be a bystander” in the event of a significant escalation, with Tehran and Washington “driving events on the ground” rather than Baghdad.

“Iraq’s diplomatic maneuvering is likely to remain very critical of Israel and even the US at times, though it doesn’t yet seem like it’ll push US troops to leave the country,” Bohl told Arab News.

INNUMBERS

  • 42m Population of Iraq.
  • 11m Size of labor force.
  • 14.19% Total unemployment rate.
  • 27.2% Youth unemployment rate.
  • 27% Public debt as a percent of GDP.

One powerful Shiite figure and militia leader who has repeatedly clashed with pro-Iran factions in Iraq is Muqtada Al-Sadr, who has already brought his followers out in force to condemn Israel. Analysts believe he may seek to leverage the present crisis to reenter politics and challenge his Iran-backed rivals.

Wing says Al-Sadr, like other political leaders in Iraq, is “hoping to exploit” the crisis in Gaza for his own ends. Indeed, the street protests he has organized in recent days potentially mark the beginning of a campaign ahead of elections in December.

Bohl agrees it seems likely that Al-Sadr will use the crisis for “at least marginal political gain.” However, he is unsure whether the issue will bring Al-Sadr back into politics since the “factors that drove him out” in the first place have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“On the other hand, if there is a major regional escalation that involves Iraq, Al-Sadr could be one of the Shiite politicians Iraq would look to for leadership as it accounted for how the country was pulled into the conflict to start with,” Bohl said.




Members of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim Al-Nujaba movement wave the Palestinian flag during a rally in Baghdad on October 8, 2023, to express their support of the “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” which was launched by Hamas militants the previous day against Israel from the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

The risk of a broader conflict is considerable. Wing says some Iraqi groups are already discussing “escalating their ongoing attacks” if a ground war begins in Gaza. He predicts such an escalation would “probably mean rocket and drone strikes on the US embassy” in Baghdad.

“I’ve read that factions are split about whether to get directly involved in the conflict. And if they did, it would be with Hezbollah in Lebanon and not with Hamas in Gaza,” he said.

Bohl believes that while it remains a “potent possibility” that an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza could result in significant instability in Iraq, “there are different drivers to consider.”

“If such militias escalate against the US too much, they could trigger a regional US reaction to Iran and its proxies that would not be in Iran’s interest,” he said.

“I largely expect they’ll engage in harassment and one-off attacks rather than mass attacks designed to cause significant casualties.”




Syrians wave flags and lift a placard depicting (L to R) Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Yemen’s Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a rally marking the yearly Al-Quds (Jerusalem) day, at the Al-Nayrab camp for Palestinian refugees east of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, on May 7, 2021. (AFP)

Both analysts believe the latest attacks are intended to demonstrate the capabilities of these militias to strike US forces rather than to actually inflict casualties on them.

Wing summed up the current attacks as “completely symbolic,” explaining that if these militias wanted to launch “real assaults to do damage,” they would “use dozens of rockets and drones.”

“The ongoing attacks are just shooting a few rockets and using one, two drones,” he said. “If they caused some serious US casualties, Washington would retaliate, and I don’t think the Iraqi factions want that.”

For Bohl, these are “harassing attacks on US targets designed to gain political legitimacy and signal to the US and Israel the risks of escalation by their side.”




Syrian air defense reportedly intercepting an Israeli missile in the sky over the Syrian capital Damascus on February 24, 2020. (AFP)

In February 2021, a militia rocket attack targeting the American base in Iraqi-Kurdistan’s Irbil International Airport killed a civilian contractor. The US retaliated against Iran-backed militias in Syria instead of Iraq, likely to avoid destabilizing the situation in Iraq through tit-for-tat exchanges of fire.

It is unclear whether that was the goal of Thursday’s retaliatory strikes in Syria or if the US would consider retaliation within Iraq in the future.

“I think it completely depends upon the situation, such as where the attack takes place and the nature of the US casualties,” Wing said. “The bigger the death toll of US soldiers, the bigger Washington’s response will be.”

He added: “If a lot of Americans get killed, you could expect US retaliatory strikes across Syria and Iraq. If one or two get killed, the US would probably hit an ammo dump of some Iraqi faction.”




An Iraqi supporter of the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) forces walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, in the capital Baghdad on December 30, 2020, ahead of the first anniversary of their killing in a US drone strike. (AFP)

Bohl also believes future US retaliatory strikes will “remain proportional and focused on the origins of the attacks” rather than “a comprehensive campaign” targeting Iran’s proxies across the region.

“But this would change if the US believed Iran was preparing for a region-wide escalation, at which point the US would likely try to prevent such an escalation with a more thorough pre-emptive campaign.”

Looking to the future, Al-Rahim, the former Iraqi diplomat and analyst, said: “What is certain is that the renewed strength of hardliners in Iraq will translate into increased Iranian interference in the country’s internal affairs and foreign policy choices.”

She expects Tehran’s regional calculations to “determine the scope and modality of belligerence by its Iraqi allies, leading to greater pressure” on Al-Sudani and his government.

 


Rare protests in northern Algeria over water shortage

Rare protests in northern Algeria over water shortage
Updated 12 sec ago
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Rare protests in northern Algeria over water shortage

Rare protests in northern Algeria over water shortage

ALGIERS: Protesters took to the streets for the second day Monday in Algeria’s northern Tiaret region, social media reports said, in rare demonstrations against severe shortages of drinking water.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had vowed to address the issue by the Eid Al-Adha holiday which began Sunday.
According to several social media accounts, demonstrations erupted and roads were blocked in Tiaret, southwest of the capital Algiers, from the start of Eid Al-Adha.
Images shared on social media showed at least two roads connecting Tiaret to the neighboring towns of Frenda and Boucheguif blocked by rocks and improvised barricades.
But neither official nor private domestic media reported on the protests.
“Your promises to the residents of Tiaret have been in vain. From the first day of Eid, many areas have been without water,” one user posted on the Algerian water company’s page.

Screenshot from Google map showing tiaret, the site of protests in Algeria.

About 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the city of Tiaret, in Rahouia, images circulated online showed a gathering of citizens blocking the local district chief from leaving his headquarters until he heard their concerns.
Since May, all the tributaries of the semi-desert region and its Bakhedda dam have run dry.
Protests broke out at the start of June in Tiaret, with demonstrators burning tires and blocking roads at the time, according to social media posts.
Faced with the issue in the lead-up to early elections in September, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had called a cabinet meeting on June 2 and ordered the interior and water ministers to draw up an urgent plan to address the water shortages within 48 hours.
The following day, the two ministers traveled to Tiaret to present a plan to resolve the problem “before Eid Al-Adha.”
A system supplying water from wells connected to the water network resolved the issue in central Tiaret, but not in other parts of the region, according to online posts.
Protests have been rare since Tebboune’s election in December 2019 after his predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in the wake of mass Hirak movement demonstrations against him.
Tebboune has not yet declared whether he will seek reelection but has been very visible in the media and at public events.
 


Kamala Harris meets with former Israeli hostage who described being sexually assaulted in Gaza

Kamala Harris meets with former Israeli hostage who described being sexually assaulted in Gaza
Updated 36 min 7 sec ago
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Kamala Harris meets with former Israeli hostage who described being sexually assaulted in Gaza

Kamala Harris meets with former Israeli hostage who described being sexually assaulted in Gaza
  • Harris on Monday urged Hamas to accept a US-backed ceasefire proposal

WASHINGTON: Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday met with an Israeli lawyer who has publicly described being sexually assaulted while held hostage in Gaza, and said the story left her fearing more such accounts “will only increase as more hostages are released.”
Harris hosted an event highlighting efforts to reduce conflict-related sexual violence around the world and said she’d spoken with Amit Soussana, who was abducted from her home when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
Soussana detailed for The New York Times being sexually assaulted while held in Gaza, before she was released, along with a group of other hostages, during a November ceasefire that briefly suspended fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Harris said that after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, “I saw images of bloody Israeli women abducted.”
“Then it came to light that Hamas committed rape and gang rape at the Nova music festival,” the vice president said, referring to the Tribe of Nova music that was overrun by Hamas militants. “And women’s bodies were found naked from the waist down, hands tied behind their back and shot in the head.”
Such accounts of atrocities are not new, but Harris detailing accusations of sexual violence surrounding the Israel-Hamas war comes as the Biden administration is working to broker another ceasefire to pause the fighting in Gaza.
Harris on Monday urged Hamas to accept a US-backed ceasefire proposal. She also said she heard stories from former Israeli hostages about what they “witnessed and heard in captivity,” and spoke with Soussana, who the vice president said “has bravely come forward with her account of sexual violence while she was held captive by Hamas.”
“These testimonies, I fear, will only increase as more hostages are released,” Harris said. “We cannot look away. And we will not be silent.”
Hamas has denied sexually assaulting people during the Oct. 7, 2024, attack, or the hostages it has held since, and false reports of abuse have sometimes helped fueled the conflict between the militant group and Israel.
But a United Nations report released in March found “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture,” and other cruel and inhumane treatment of women during its Oct. 7, 2024, attack. The same report found there are “reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing.”
The vice president also said her “heart breaks for all these survivors and their families, and for all the pain and suffering over the last eight months in Israel and in Gaza.”
Harris said “sexual violence has been a tactic of war since ancient times,” though she noted that the international community has made recent progress recognizing it “as an attack on peace, stability and human rights.”
She said that the Biden administration had worked to prevent such violence by doing things like providing rape kits and heath care for survivors and helping to train militaries and back international peacekeepers. The US has also imposed economic sanctions on individuals associated with conflicts in places like Iraq, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
“It’s not enough. The crimes persist and, globally, our system of accountability remains inadequate,” Harris said. “More must be done.”


Iran’s presidential candidates debate economic policies ahead of the June 28 vote

Iran’s presidential candidates debate economic policies ahead of the June 28 vote
Updated 18 June 2024
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Iran’s presidential candidates debate economic policies ahead of the June 28 vote

Iran’s presidential candidates debate economic policies ahead of the June 28 vote
  • Five of the candidates are hard-liners while the sixth candidate, lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian, 69, is a heart surgeon who has the support of some pro-reformers

TEHRAN, Iran: Six presidential candidates on Monday discussed Iran’s economic problems in a four-hour live debate on state TV, ahead of the June 28 presidential election following a helicopter crash last month that killed President Ebrahim Raisi and seven others.
It was the first of five debates planned in the 10 days remaining before the vote in a shortened campaign to replace Raisi, a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once floated as a possible successor to the 85-year-old cleric.
The candidates were to discuss their proposals and plans for Iran’s spiraling economy, struggling under sanctions from the United States and other Western nations.
They all promised they would try and get the sanctions lifted and introduce reforms but none offered any details. The candidates also discussed inflation, the budget deficit, Iran’s housing problem and ways to fight corruption.
The June 28 election comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, its arming of Russia in that country’s war on Ukraine and its wide-reaching crackdowns on dissent.
Iran’s support of militia proxy forces throughout the wider Middle East, meanwhile, have, been increasingly in the spotlight as Iran-backed Yemen’s Houthi rebels attack ships in the Red Sea over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
Five of the candidates are hard-liners while the sixth candidate, lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian, 69, is a heart surgeon who has the support of some pro-reformers.
The most prominent candidate remains Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 62, a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. However, many remember that Qalibaf, as a former Guard general, was part of a violent crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999. He also reportedly ordered live gunfire to be used against students in 2003 while serving as the country’s police chief.
Among those running for president are also Iran’s vice president, Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, 53, and the current Tehran mayor, Ali Reza Zakani 58. A member of Supreme National Security Council, 58-year-old Saeed Jalili and cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi, 64, a previous interior minister under former relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, are also in the race.
Qalibaf promised he would be a “strong” president who would support the poor, better manage the economy and effort to remove sanctions through diplomatic means.
Pezeshkian said the sanctions were a “disaster” and also lobbied for less restrictions on the Internet. Iran has long blocked Facebook, X, Instagram, Telegram and other major social media platforms and messaging systems, mainly over security concerns
All the candidates pledged to strengthen the country’s currency, the rial, which has plunged to 580,000 against the dollar. The rial was 32,000 to the dollar when Iran and world powers reached a deal with world powers in 2015 on capping Tehran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.
The six stayed away from the topic of the tattered nuclear deal. Khamenei has final say on all major state matters, including nuclear, foreign policy, space and military programs.
Pro-reform figures such as former President Mohammad Khatami and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal have backed Pezeshkian, though votes in his favor in his parliamentary constituency in the northwestern city of Tabriz declined from 36 percent to 24 percent of the vote in elections over the past eight years.
Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election in a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

 


Israeli anti-government protesters rally in Jerusalem

Israeli anti-government protesters rally in Jerusalem
Updated 18 June 2024
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Israeli anti-government protesters rally in Jerusalem

Israeli anti-government protesters rally in Jerusalem
  • Israel has killed at least 37,347 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry

JERUSALEM: Anti-government protesters took to the streets of Jerusalem on Monday, clashing with police near the house of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling for new elections.
Netanyahu once again sits atop one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israel’s history after a wartime unity government fell apart a week ago when two centrist former generals, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, quit.
Netanyahu is now dependent on ultra-Orthodox and far-right partners, whose hard-line agenda caused a major rift in Israeli society even before Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault sparked the war in Gaza.
The often weekly demonstrations have yet to change the political landscape, and Netanyahu still controls a stable majority in parliament.
Following the departures of Gantz and Eisenkot, opposition groups declared a week of street protests that include blocking highways and mass demonstrations.
By sundown, a crowd of thousands had gathered outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, before marching to Netanyahu’s private home in the city.
The demonstration grew rowdy. After reaching Netanyahu’s house, some of the protesters broke off and tried to break through barriers set up by the police, who pushed them back. At one point a bonfire was lit in the street. Police used a water canon to disperse the demonstration.
Many waved Israeli flags. Others carried signs criticizing Netanyahu’s handling of pivotal issues, like promoting a divisive military draft bill that exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews from otherwise mandatory service, as well as his handling of the war with Hamas in Gaza and fighting with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“The healing process for the country of Israel, it starts here. After last week when Benny Gantz and Eisenkot left the coalition, we are continuing this process and hopefully this government will resign soon,” said protester Oren Shvill. 

 


Israeli negotiator says tens of Gaza hostages ‘alive with certainty’

Israeli negotiator says tens of Gaza hostages ‘alive with certainty’
Updated 18 June 2024
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Israeli negotiator says tens of Gaza hostages ‘alive with certainty’

Israeli negotiator says tens of Gaza hostages ‘alive with certainty’
  • “Tens are alive with certainty,” the official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue

JERUSALEM: A senior Israeli negotiator told AFP Monday that tens of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza are certainly alive and that Israel cannot accept halting the war until all captives are released in a deal.
Hamas militants seized 251 hostages on October 7, of whom Israel believes 116 remain in Gaza, including 41 who the army says are dead.
“Tens are alive with certainty,” the official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
“We cannot leave them there a long time, they will die,” he said, adding that a vast majority of them were being held by Hamas militants.
US President Joe Biden last month unveiled a three-phase proposal to end the war in Gaza, which includes a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas.
Biden said the first phase includes a “full and complete ceasefire” lasting six weeks, with Israeli forces withdrawing from “all populated areas of Gaza.”
The official said Israel could not end the conflict with Hamas before a hostage deal because the militants could “breach their commitment... and drag out the negotiations for 10 years” or more.
“We cannot, at this point in time — before signing the agreement — commit to ending the war,” the official said.
“Because during the first phase, there’s a clause that we hold negotiations about the second phase. The second phase is the release of the men and male soldier hostages.”
The official said the Israeli negotiating team had greenlit the Biden plan.
“We expect, and are waiting for, Hamas to say ‘yes,’” the official said.
The Israeli government has yet to publicly approve the Biden plan.
“In the event we don’t reach an agreement with Hamas, the IDF (army) will continue to fight in the Gaza Strip in a no less intense fashion than it’s fighting now,” he said.
“In a different manner, but an intense manner.”
The war between Israel and Hamas broke out after Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory campaign in Gaza has killed at least 37,347 people, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.