Pro-Iranian protesters target U.S. embassy in Iraq

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Hadi al-Amiri

Hadi al-Amiri

Kataib Hezbollah

Kataib Hezbollah

In the wake of US airstrikes in Iraq that killed members of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah, Iran is seizing the opportunity to use its clandestine networks in Iraq to push the US to leave the country. The US has already left Iraq twice before, in the 1990s and in 2011. Iran wagers that it can leverage the airstrikes to mobilize people against the US in Iraq.

The US presence in Iraq has been opposed by Iranian-backed militias and also by politician across the spectrum of parties for years. From Ali al-Sistani to Muqtada al-Sadr and pro-Iranian politicians such as Hadi al-Amiri, Iran hopes it can use a variety of methods to evict the US.

On Tuesday funerals were held for the members of Kataib Hezbollah killed in US airstrikes. Kataib Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups in Iraq have been responsible for more than 12 attacks on bases and facilities where US forces are present. Since February, they have been aiming rockets at US forces. It began with harassing fire in May and then escalated in October and November. Salvos of Iranian-made 107mm rockets were used, fired from the back of improvised trucks. The US warned of a decisive response in May and December. In addition, the US sanctioned Qais Khazali, head of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia and also sanctioned Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, another pro-Iran militia. Kataib Hezbollah was already sanctioned. On December 27 a US contractor was killed when 32 rockets fired by Kataib Hezbollah hit the K-1 base. Four American soldiers were reported wounded. The US ordered hits on five targets of Kataib Hezbollah in Syria and Iraq.

The strikes were larger retaliation than Iran expected. Iran had already mined ships in May and June and downed a US drone in June. It didn’t expect much would happen. Kataib Hezbollah is regularly in contact with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. They were not on alert. The US airstrikes killed up to 30 of the Kataib members and wounded 50, according to Iranian reports.

In response Iran is mobilizing. First it encouraged Iraq’s Prime Minister, who resigned in late November but is running a caretaker government, to hold a national security council meeting. He says that he had been phoned by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the airstrikes and had opposed them. He said it was a dangerous escalation and violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. Adel Abudl Mahdi told those assembled at his meeting that he had tried to warn the Popular Mobilization Units, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a part, that airstrikes were imminent.

Now the Iranian IRGC is entering the fray. It has said that the PMU has a right to retaliate. The IRGC appeared to be speaking on behalf of Iraq and the PMU on Tuesday, indicating how the IRGC views Iraq almost as a colony or at least as a place where what the IRGC says is also policy in Iraq. We know from leaks from Iranian intelligence how confident Iran is of its control of Iraq’s government. Iranian intelligence officials openly talk about various ministers being pro-Iran or loyal to Iran. Iran collects intelligence on the disposition of US forces in Iraq and has sought to turn those in Iraq who formerly worked with the US. Since October Iran has been on the defensive in Iraq because massive protests in Shi’ite areas of Iraq have targeted Iran’s consulates and the offices of groups like the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Iraqis are angry at the role of pro-Iranian militias. The airstrikes have given Iran a moment to collect itself and try to change the narrative. It tried to mobilize protests in southern Iraq on Monday and Tuesday. Iran also wants protesters to lay siege to the US embassy in Baghdad.

Other Iraqi politicians have condemned the attacks. President Barham Saleh has critiqued them. Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned the attacks, as well as Qais Khazali and also PMU commander in Anbar Qassem Musleh. He told Al-Monitor that “we heard a lot of discussion about the US and Israel planning to attack.” He said the government was weak and had allowed foreign interference in the country. The US attack will make the PMU stronger, Musleh said.

Sadr will now work to get US forces to leave Iraq, according to Reuters. Sistani was also angered by the airstrikes, saying the misbehavior of some who fired rockets were not an excuse for them. Now protesters have gathered outside the US embassy in Baghdad. Rumors say US staff has been evacuated. The protesters are erecting tents and appear to want to stay for the long term.

Iran’s goal now is to try to shift Iraqi focus from the protests over the last two months where Iranian-backed militias killed 500 Iraqis and injured 19,000, to try to get Iraqis angered over the US airstrikes. This will be a complex struggle for Iran because Iraq is a complex and divided country. But Iran has feasted on these divisions and carved out its own IRGC in Iraq, seeking to slowly take over Iraqi institutions and Iraq’s economy.

Source » jpost

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