Iraq becoming a tinderbox due to Gaza war spillover


Iraq becoming a tinderbox due to Gaza war spillover

Iraq becoming a tinderbox due to Gaza war spillover
Military vehicles of US soldiers are seen at the Al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq. (Reuters)
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Six weeks into the Gaza war, Iraq suffered its first casualties arising from that conflict. On Nov. 21-22, a series of US airstrikes near Baghdad killed nine Iraqi militants whose organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, had been accused of launching drone attacks against American bases in the country.
The attacks on US targets by Iran-backed militias in Iraq began on Oct. 17, when Israel was suspected of bombing Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, killing more than 300 Palestinians.
Though Iraq is far from the battlefront in Gaza, over the past two months nearly 100 attacks have been launched on American bases in the country. Although the casualties have been relatively light, these militant actions reflect a pervasive anti-US sentiment in Iraq and invite swift retaliation. There are now legitimate concerns that the spread of the Gaza war across the region could begin in Iraq.
In the period before the war began, Iraq had been experiencing an unprecedented period of stability and peace. In March, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that Iraq was “enjoying its most stable period since 2003.” Several observers praised Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani for providing a “service government,” in terms of its efforts to develop energy security and infrastructure. They were looking forward to his administration addressing other deeply embedded governance challenges in the near future.
All this ended with the commencement of fighting in Gaza. Thousands of Iraqis thronged the streets of Baghdad, sharply criticizing the US and Israel and displaying portraits of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Popular leader Muqtada Al-Sadr summoned his supporters to join the mass demonstrations. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani spoke out on the issue of Palestinian rights and attacked the Israeli occupation and the destruction in Gaza. A former prime minister called for the removal of the 2,500 US troops that remain in Iraq.
Shiite militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and the Badr Organization have been at the forefront of these agitations. The head of Badr stated that the liberation of Palestine would begin in Iraq. Some militias have set up “support rooms” to coordinate their backing for Hamas.
In an attempt to assuage popular feelings, Al-Sudani and other prominent government figures have condemned the Israeli attacks in Gaza and expressed total solidarity with the Palestinians, thus placing Iraq’s politicians and people on the same side. From the outset, the prime minister’s principal effort has been to curb the aggressive actions of the militants toward American targets, as he warns of the need to avoid provoking harsh US or Israeli military retaliations.

In the period before the war began, Iraq had been experiencing an unprecedented period of stability and peace.

Talmiz Ahmad

The nightmare scenario for Al-Sudani would be a return to conflict in the country, which would jeopardize its economic recovery, encourage greater Iranian influence in domestic matters and make Iraq the theater for a major confrontation between Washington and Tehran.
Al-Sudani’s concerns do not seem to have affected the militants, who have found in the Gaza conflict a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. There are reports that their Iranian mentors have advised them to conduct “low-damage” operations against US and Israeli targets, but not to get directly involved in the Gaza conflict itself. This has resulted in continual drone and rocket attacks on US targets at Ain Al-Asad Airbase, Harir Airbase and Baghdad International Airport.
These attacks prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet Al-Sudani in Baghdad on Nov. 5 to convey, through him, a message to the Iranian authorities, warning them to restrain the militants or face harsh retaliation.
Al-Sudani traveled to Tehran the next day to deliver Washington’s message to President Ebrahim Raisi and the supreme leader, even though both have condemned Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza and Raisi holds the US responsible for Israel’s violence against the Palestinians.
The tit-for-tat skirmishes between Iraqi militants and US forces escalated at the end of November, when the former launched a ballistic missile attack on Ain Al-Asad Airbase, outside Baghdad, which injured eight Americans. The US responded with a gunship attack that killed nine fighters — the first Iraqi “martyrs” of the war in Gaza.
The US attacks took place in an area south of Baghdad called Jurf Al-Nasr. It is the headquarters of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Western sources also refer to it as a “forward operating base for Iran.” The militia’s lethal weapons, including drones, rockets and missiles, are assembled in this area and it is from there that most of the attacks on US targets have been launched.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in late October that his country had upgraded its state of defense preparedness in the region in response to “recent escalations by Iran and its proxies across the Middle East region.”
Iran’s response has so far been nonchalant. The country’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said at the Doha Forum last week that his country had been receiving messages from the US every week. He denied that Iran was directing militants in Iraq, instead suggesting “they were merely defending the people of Gaza.” He warned that the war in Gaza could lead to a “regional explosion.”
As fighting rages in Gaza, Iraq is gradually becoming a tinderbox. If Israel’s violence in Gaza continues unabated, it would need just one major militant attack in Iraq that causes several American casualties for the fighting to escalate there and set the stage for a direct confrontation between the US and Iran — a conflict that both nations, despite coming to the brink on several occasions, have managed to avoid for more than two decades.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.

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