U.S. in Iraq

U.S. troops as targets

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Iraqis carry the coffins of Hizbollah fighters in a funeral procession in the city of Najaf on December 31. Photo: HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP

Supporters of the Hashd al-Shaabi military network breach the outer wall of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during a protest against the air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. Photo: AFP

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

The bombing of the Kataib Hizbollah camps and the murder of Soleimani have made the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq unfeasible.

It was in Iraq, already convulsed by protests for more than two months that have claimed hundreds of lives, that the United States chose to target Major General Qassem Soleimani. Before the assassination of the Iranian general, the U.S. military targeted the powerful local militia, the Kataib Hizbollah. In the last week of December, U.S. forces launched attacks on five camps where the militia group, along with other Iraqi forces, were stationed. More than 25 people, including senior commanders and soldiers, were killed and 50 were injured.

The U.S. claimed that it was responding to an alleged attack by the Kataib Hizbollah on a military base that hosted U.S. soldiers. According to the Pentagon, one U.S. contractor (read mercenary soldier) was killed in the attack and three U.S. and two Iraqi soldiers were injured.

The U.S. military’s response was massive, unwarranted and totally in disregard of Iraqi sovereignty. It was a prelude to the even more sinister action that the Trump administration would execute less than a week later. U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper told Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi about the impending attack half an hour before the event. The Iraqi Prime Minister strongly advised him to call off the attack but to no avail. The Iraqi government and the U.S.’ European partners were kept totally in the dark about the reckless game plan the Trump administration was about to implement.

The U.S. attack on the five posts went ahead despite a spokesman for the Kataib Hizbollah denying the group’s involvement in the death of the U.S. contractor. The attack which killed the military contractor could have easily been the handiwork of Kurdish forces, which have still not reconciled to the loss of Kirkuk to the Iraqi central government. The Daesh also continues to have a much diminished presence in the region and could have carried out the attack.

But the Trump administration was getting ready to implement its blueprint to ratchet up tensions in the region and bring it to the brink of a new conflagration. Both Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, were quick to issue statements promising a “decisive response” for the death of the contractor. Five Iraqi paramilitary bases were attacked, three in Iraq and two in Syria located along the border between the two countries in the sparsely populated Anbar region. Iraqi paramilitary groups are still engaged in rooting out the remnants of the Daesh in the region.

The Kataib Hizbollah is part of the Popular Mobilisation Group (PMG) that was trained by Iran to take on the Daesh. It is not the same as the Hizbollah in Lebanon, which has been active for the last four decades. The PMG, of which the Kataib Hizbollah is a major component, fought alongside U.S. forces against the Daesh in Iraq. The PMG did much of the fighting in partnership with the Iraqi army, with the U.S. providing air cover in the fierce battle to liberate Mosul and the rest of Iraq. Nearly a third of Iraq and Syria were occupied by the Daesh. Iranian-trained militias in Syria had a big role in driving the Daesh to the ground.

Interestingly, one of the positions attacked by the U.S. was the Al Qaem al Bukamal border post, the only one independently operated by the Iraqi Army. All the other border posts have a U.S. military presence. The post was also attacked a few months ago by Israeli planes. One of the major tasks of the 5,200 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq is to ensure that Iranian weapons do not find their way into Lebanon through the Iraq-Syria border. The U.S. is doing so at the behest of the Israeli government, which has become paranoid about the growing strength of the Hizbollah militia in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted in August 2019 that Israeli planes had carried out attacks inside Iraq to “prevent Iranian consolidation”. Israel can only attack Iraq with U.S. logistics and intelligence support.

After the wanton massacre of the paramilitary fighters by U.S. forces in the last week of December, peaceful coexistence between the Iraqi Army and the U.S. troops was becoming increasingly difficult. The paramilitary groups, being nominally part of the Iraqi Army, live and train within the confines of Iraqi Army bases. The chances of revenge attacks on U.S. soldiers had become a distinct possibility even before the assassination of Soleimani.

The de facto leader of the PMG, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, had promised a “very tough response” against the U.S. forces in Iraq after the killing of 25 of his fighters. Al-Muhandis, who had gone to receive Soleimani at the Baghdad airport and was with him in the vehicle taking them into the city, was also killed in the U.S. attack on January 2.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi issued a statement condemning the December U.S. attack on the Iraqi militia as “unacceptably vicious”. He said that his government considered it “a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the entire region”. He ordered three days of national mourning in memory of those killed in the attack. The bigger attack was to come in a few days’ time, illustrating the U.S.’ contempt for the Iraqi government and the country’s sovereignty.

Abdul-Mahdi had put in his papers in early December, bowing to the demands of Iraqi protesters. He is continuing as caretaker Prime Minister until a consensus candidate is found. Some of the protests were distinctly anti-Iranian in their rhetoric. After the attack on the Kataib Hizbollah militia, which officially answers to the Iraqi Army, the anger on the Iraqi streets has once again turned on the U.S.

The U.S. was trying to fan the latent animosity that exists within a minority against what is perceived as undue Iranian influence on Iraqi politics. After bombing the Kataib Hizbollah posts, Trump in fact posted a tweet, encouraging the protesters to unseat the Iranian-backed Iraqi central government: “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be controlled and dominated by Iran, this is your time.” Senior Iraqi officials and political leaders had publicly called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from their country before the assassination of Soleimani. All the political parties have closed ranks on the issue. Muqtada al-Sadr, the popular cleric who was tacitly supporting the anti-government protests in Baghdad and cities like Najaf and Basra until the U.S. attack, issued a statement saying that he was willing to work with the Iran-backed Iraqi militias to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq through political and legal means.

The cleric, whose supporters constitute the biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said that if peaceful means did not work to get the U.S. out, he would consider taking recourse to “other actions”. After the assassination of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis, the young cleric announced that he was reviving the “Mahdi army”. The militia under his control had fought a bloody war with U.S. occupation forces after 2003. Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement which said that the U.S. “must accept full responsibility for the consequences of this illegal action”.

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, while condemning the “atrocious aggression” against Iraq in December, warned that the country should not be turned into a field for “settling regional and international scores”.

Soon after President Trump triumphantly announced the targeting of the Iraqi militias, thousands of protesters swarmed into the high security “green zone” in Baghdad to protest in front of the U.S. embassy. There were protests all over Iraq. Angry protesters in Baghdad, many of them belonging to Iraqi militias, overwhelmed the security guards protecting the U.S. embassy and entered its compound and burned down some of the smaller buildings. They did not, however, enter the main embassy building. Some Iraqi Army regulars in full uniform were also seen participating in the sometimes-violent protests. The Iraqi Interior Minister, Yassin al-Yassiri, said the protests were “the dangerous ramifications” of the U.S. military action against the Iraqi militia group.

U.S. embassy besieged

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is the biggest in the world, occupying more than 100 acres (40 hectares), and functions virtually as a state within a state. The troops guarding the embassy had to use tear gas against the protesters. Trump ordered the deployment of an additional 750 troops to the region.

The U.S. Defence Secretary said that the move was “in response to increased threat levels to U.S. personnel and their facilities”. Trump blamed Tehran “for orchestrating” the protests and warned that Iran would be held responsible for the “break-in”. He issued an ominous statement that Iran would have to pay “a very big price” if American lives and interests were hurt. According to reports in the U.S. media, Trump and his closest advisers like Mike Pompeo were convinced that Soleimani was masterminding the demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy. It was after that the decision to target Soleimani was taken.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded by saying that Trump “can’t do anything” against Iran, “and if you’re logical, which you’re not, you’d see that your crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan have made nations hate you”. There were fears expressed within the U.S. establishment and the media that there could be a repeat of the U.S. embassy takeover scenario that occurred in Tehran 40 years ago.

After two days, the protesters agreed to end their sit-in at the U.S. embassy gates at the urging of the government and senior clerics. The leaders of Kataib Hizbollah and other militias also urged the protesters to leave the green zone. The militia leaders claimed that the raucous protests were called off only after the Iraqi Prime Minister gave an assurance that he would expedite legislation that would force all U.S. troops to exit Iraq.

Many U.S. policymakers seemed resigned to the eventuality of U.S. troops and business interests being forced out of Iraq even before the killing of Soleimani. The ill-judged attack on the Iraqi militia had already made the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq unfeasible. The Washington Post correspondent in Beirut commented that the only way for U.S. diplomats trapped in the embassy to leave Baghdad was by helicopter, reminiscent of the exit from Vietnam. The U.S. action in the first week of January could signal the beginning of the end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

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