The decade has begun with a serious escalation in tensions between the US and Iran and further provocations which amount to acts of war now the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp’s Quds Forces Qasem Soleimani has been killed in air strikes near Baghdad Airport. This was in swift succession to the 30 December American air strikes on camps belonging to the Iranian-supported Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and culminated with angry protestors attacking the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, in scenes reminiscent of the US embassy siege in Tehran back in November 1979. The severity of the developments and potential repercussions have now reached a critical stage.
Trump threaten Iran over attack on US embassy in Baghdad
After the embassy compound in Baghdad was attacked by demonstrators over the deaths of militia members in US air strikes, Trump said “Tehran will pay a very big price," adding that “this is not a warning, It’s a threat”. pic.twitter.com/MT88d4tB47
— The Diplomatist Magazine (@The_Diplomatist) January 2, 2020
Following the previous week’s rocket attacks on the K1 Iraqi military base in the northern city of Kirkuk, resulting in the single death of what the media are referring to as a thus far unnamed “contractor” and several wounded American and Iraqi soldiers, Washington believed it had credible evidence that the Iranian-supported Kataib Hezbollah (KH) armed group were responsible. The next day, Iraqi Special Operations Forces released images of a rocket launcher and four rockets which failed to launch. These suggest they are Fadjr-1 rockets made in Iran, however many of these have been looted by terrorist groups from Iraqi and Syrian military stockpiles previously.
No group has claimed responsibility for this attack nor similar attacks which have been increasing steadily in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, the US Defence Secretary Mark Esper decided to inform outgoing Iraq Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi that the US will carry out its intended strikes against those it suspects were behind the Kirkuk attacks, disregarding Mahdi’s pleas for the air strikes to be called off.
The Trump administration did Daesh a big favour, by killing Soleimani.
The Iranians & many Iraqis will be very mad about this.
It is a major escalation https://t.co/4RkaLdzfVj
— Jay Nelson 🍁 (@StoneSculptorJN) January 3, 2020
What ensued, was a reckless and disproportionate response involving air strikes against five targets on either side of the Iraq and Syria border (some 540 kilometres away from the K1 base in Kirkuk), in particular the strategic Qaim border crossing which had been opened by Mahdi in September after remaining closed since 2012, much to the ire of the US and Israel. Crucially, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd Al-Shaabi), which includes KH, forms part of Iraq’s armed forces under the command of the Iraqi Prime Minister and were instrumental in the fight against Daesh, who are down but not defeated outright.
For the record, US strikes in #Iraq killed 22 Iraqi army soldiers and federal police and 9 members of Kataeb Hezb. All of them were IRAQIS. Not a single Iranian. If you're crying about the US embassy burning after the US illegally launched an Iraqi killing spree, cry me a river.
— Sharmine Narwani (@snarwani) December 31, 2019
What is seldom reported about the attacks on the “KH” was that of those killed, only nine were KH fighters, the remaining 22 were Iraqi soldiers and policemen. No Iranians were killed, yet we still have some observers who are stubborn in thinking ordinary Iraqis wouldn’t be outraged at this blatant attack on their armed forces and country and took to protesting against the US after carrying out funeral prayers for the deceased. Interestingly, the attacks against Iranian diplomatic missions was organic yet those against the US “embassy” which is practically the size of the Vatican and is in reality a huge spy den, is being orchestrated by Tehran. One image of graffiti on the US embassy compound that “Soleimani is our leader” is apparently sufficient evidence of this.
Although US President Donald Trump and indeed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will welcome these developments as distractions from impeachment and indictment hearings, respectively – they also have sights set on being re-elected – and nothing quite helps the public rally around their leader other than a war in both societies, even if it is as ill-advised as going after the ultimate Neo-Con dream of going to war against Iran. What was Trump’s reaction to edging the US closer to war with Iran? He tweeted an image of the American flag. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has also been consistently war-mongering against Tehran, is believed to be on his way out and may also do his up-most to bring about the war.
Those assassinated along with Soleimani were Mohammed Reza Al-Jaberi, a senior Iraqi commander and head of public affairs of the Hashd, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy chairman of the Hashd. At the time of writing, there are further reports that the US Marines have arrested the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq leader Qais Al-Khazali and Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Brigades, both organisations are also part of the Hashd umbrella. Khazali warned two months before it occurred, that Iraqi protests would erupt in October, followed by a planned coup in November. He was not far off, especially as the president and prime minister had since handed in their resignations.
It is clear that the US is treading a dangerous path of seeking to provoke Iran to respond more openly and punitively, given that it has – up until now – only targeted Iran tactically, via their supported Iraqi armed forces. By going for the head of the Quds Forces and arguably the most important Iranian official after the Supreme Leader, and senior Hashd figures, the US made a strategic move. The Hashd, supported by the Quds Force, provide a check and balance against US-sponsored terrorism in the region.
What we can expect is a concerted push by the Iraqi government for the US to militarily withdraw, or retaliations within Iraq from elements in the armed forces, ie the Hashd, especially as the KH was formed as a result of the illegal US invasion of 2003 and can easily return to form, as they did in the years following the occupation with guerrilla warfare against the US forces. The Iraqi nationalist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has also expressed a willingness to co-operate with his one-time rivals, the Hashd, with a loyalist militia with its own history of armed resistance against the Americans.
Fundamentally, the sweeping influence of Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani can determine how widespread and popular the resistance can be, if it is in the interests of Iraq, he has after all stated that the authorities are within their right to respond to the attack on Iraq’s armed forces. In anticipation, Washington has deployed more troops to the region. More significant yet, will be the inevitable, albeit heavily cautious and calculated response from Tehran from the latest act of aggression by a desperate hegemon which is fighting against the tide of its growing geo-political irrelevance in the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.