Risk of parallel US-Iranian conflict in Iraq rises as Tehran-backed militias run amok and lose allies
The nearly two-decade-old US military mission in Iraq has entered a dangerous new phase, with critics warning that the Biden administration has allowed the mission to continue without clear parameters or a simple endgame amid increased attacks by volatile Iranian proxies.
President Biden, who oversaw the disastrous military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, said months ago that the US combat role in Iraq would be over by the end of 2021.
As US forces officially shifted in December from a combat mission against Islamic State remnants to advising the Iraqi military, analysts say the roughly 2,500 US troops still in Iraq face growing threats , especially from Iran-backed militias in the country.
The predominantly Shia Muslim militias – several of which are directly backed by the Iranian military – have become increasingly unpredictable and erratic in recent months as their political supporters in Baghdad struggle to maintain power and influence in the country. within the Iraqi government.
The first two weeks of 2022 have seen militias launch at least four attacks on US military or diplomatic installations, including a rocket attack on Thursday that targeted the US embassy in Baghdad.
The most prominent of Iraq’s Shiite militias is Kata’ib Hezbollah, which US officials said was already launching regular drone and rocket attacks on US personnel throughout 2021.
Attacks by Kata’ib Hezbollah last summer prompted Mr Biden to order retaliatory US airstrikes on at least two occasions, targeting militia installations along the Iraq-Syria border.
The retaliatory strikes have fueled critics, who have since argued that America remains very much at war in Iraq and Syria – and that the Biden administration is allowing US forces to be drawn deeper into a shadow conflict with Iran in both countries putting troops in trouble with very little strategic advantage.
“The Teenage Rebellion”
The risk to US forces is likely to worsen further in 2022, according to some analysts, who warn that Shiite militias in Iraq are increasingly inclined to operate on their own, regardless of what their Iranian backers can or not want them to do.
Kata’ib Hezbollah and other groups may intensify their assaults on the Americans, despite what the theocratic regime in Tehran, which acts as their main backer and military partner, tells them.
“Even the Iranians are a bit annoyed with them at the moment because they are not responding to orders anymore. They’re starting to have a very adolescent rebellion – do whatever they want, even if the Iranians say, ‘Don’t kill an American by accident,'” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has closely followed Iraqi politics and the militias operating inside the country.
An even worse scenario could materialize if the US-Iranian negotiations, aimed at obtaining a new agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear program, fail. If so, Tehran could abandon all restraint and give its proxies the full green light, potentially unleashing a wave of drone attacks, suicide bombings and other strikes aimed squarely at Americans.
“If US-Iranian relations turn very negative in 2022, the security situation for our troops will also turn negative,” Knights said. “They could use a new weapon system, something we’ve never seen before, something we wouldn’t be ready for. … All that’s holding them back is that they know if they kill us, we’ll hit them back.
The security situation in Iraq has become more volatile in recent months. In November, for example, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt by armed drone – an attack that bore the hallmark of tactics frequently employed by Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi Shia militias.
Against this backdrop, the continued risk to US troops is fueling the domestic debate over exactly what Washington can achieve with its presence in both Iraq and neighboring Syria. In each country, the Biden administration’s stated mission for the Pentagon is to advise and train local security forces fighting what remains of the once powerful Islamic State terrorist organization.
But if all 2,500 US troops in Iraq and nearly 1,000 in Syria are targeted, the administration has made it clear that it will not hesitate to retaliate no matter who attacked them.
“They are clearly in danger in the region,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week, referring to US forces in Iraq. “We always have the right to defend ourselves.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan went further in a January 9 statement, warning Tehran that America would quickly rally if US service members were killed by Iranian proxies.
“As Americans, we have our disagreements about politics. … But we are united in our resolve against threats and provocations,” Sullivan said. “We are united in defense of our people. We will work with our allies and partners to deter and respond to any Iranian-led attack.
Tensions between the US and Iran have been high since former President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. They peaked in January 2020, when a US airstrike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani while visiting Baghdad with the then commander. of Kata’ib Hezbollah, who was also killed by the strike.
The Pentagon and the White House have given no indication that the United States aims to completely withdraw its forces from Iraq or Syria, drawing a clear distinction from the recent total American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Many analysts believe it is likely that US troops will remain in Iraq and Syria for years to come, working closely with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish allies, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist. group.
But critics argue that the declared mission obscures Washington’s real goal, which is to limit Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Iraq. They argue that it is foolish to put American men and women at risk in order to prop up an Iraqi government and military that might otherwise collapse and quickly come under near total Iranian control.
“Iranian influence has grown steadily since our invasion. [in 2003]. We weren’t able to control or roll back Iranian influence when we had 150,000 troops in the push in the mid-2000s and we’re not going to be able to do that with a few thousand troops,” said Dan Caldwell, a Navy veteran. of the Iraq war who is now Vice President of Foreign Policy at Stand Together.
The non-profit organization partners with many conservative outfits, including Americans for Prosperity and the Charles Koch Institute.
Mr. Caldwell argues that it is high time for all US troops to leave Iraq and Syria, and that the fight against Iranian influence has already been lost.
“Essentially Iran won this battle when we overthrew Saddam Hussein,” he said. “Iran is Iraq’s neighbour. They are strongly integrated into the Iraqi security forces. … Unless we are willing to install another Baathist Sunni strongman in Baghdad, I see no opportunity to significantly reduce Iranian influence in Iraq.
Mr Caldwell and other critics who believe the US should withdraw completely from Iraq say that by training and equipping Iraqi security forces, Washington is in some way helping the very groups that target Americans .
Indeed, Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups in Iraq are part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization that is officially part of the Iraqi military.
The PMF played a major role in US-led efforts to defeat Islamic State and crush the so-called “caliphate” the terror group had established in Iraq and Syria over the past decade.
However, the links between the Iranian government and the PMF are clear.
The January 2020 US airstrike that killed Soleimani, for example, also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In addition to commanding Kata’ib Hezbollah, Muhandis was deputy head of the PMF at the time of the strike that killed him and Solemeini as they traveled in the same vehicle near Baghdad’s main airport.
But some analysts say that while Iran-PMF ties still exist, Tehran’s direct control over its proxy militias has weakened.
Mr Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute, said Tehran currently wanted the militias to do very little beyond “cosmetic” attacks. The reason for this is partly because Iran does not want to end up in an all-out conflict with the United States, but also because Iranian leaders are still hoping to secure sanctions relief and other concessions from America and ongoing nuclear talks.
Knights stressed that the Pentagon is extremely cautious about its mission to train and assist Iraqi security forces, saying no US aid is coming to militias that might target US forces.
At the same time, Kata’ib Hezbollah and associated groups have seen their political base in Iraq begin to crumble.
In Iraq’s parliamentary elections last fall, the Fatah Alliance – a political alliance linked to Iran-backed militias – lost 28 of its 48 seats. The losses mean the militias have far less political support than they have had in recent years, although it is unclear what the new political dynamics will mean for US troops and their security in the future. .
“I have never seen the Iraqi body politic so willing to take risks to push back the militias,” Knights said. “I have never seen the militias as isolated as they are now. …In Iraq, the enemy is not in the ascendancy. He falls back into power.