Analysis: Did US change Iran policy over Iraq?

Confrontation between US, Iran escalates after Shiite militia kills US contractor, prompting massive American response.

Yochanan Visser ,

Iraqi rioters breach US embassy gate in Baghdad
Iraqi rioters breach US embassy gate in Baghdad

The confrontation between Iran and the United States significantly escalated this week after the Iranian proxy Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite force that is part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, attacked a military facility with American personnel in the vicinity of the Kurdish city of Kirkuk in north Iraq.

An American contractor died in the attack while several US soldiers were wounded, some of them seriously.

The Kataib Hezbollah attack came after other militias belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), carried out at least 12 attacks with mortars and rockets on American facilities in Iraq over the past few months.

These attacks did not cause casualties, however, and that is the reason the US army had refrained from responding militarily up to now.

The Trump Administration had made it clear that any physical harm to Americans in Iraq and Syria would trigger a harsh response. It came therefore as no surprise that US F-15 Strike Eagles bombed five Kataib Hezbollah bases in both Syria and Iraq after the attack by the Iran-founded and sponsored paramilitary force.

The Kataib Hezbollah force, which is also deployed in Syria, lost more than 27 fighters in these US attacks and vowed to take revenge.

“Our battle with America and its mercenaries is now open to all possibilities. We have no alternative today other than confrontation and there is nothing that will prevent us from responding to this crime,” a statement by the terror organization, outlawed in the US, read.

Kataib Hezbollah gets its orders from Qassem Soleimani, the crafty commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps,(IRGC). The IRGC brigade is tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution that started in 1979 and now has reached other Middle Eastern countries.

After the US-led international coalition against ISIS finished off the Caliphate of Islamic State, the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) focused on extending its grip on north and east Iraq, where Iran is carving out a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea and the Israeli Golan Heights.

The organization, which is a copy of the IRGC, also started to demand that all US troops leave Iraq, but the Trump Administration did not accede to that demand because the presence of the US army gives the US the possibility to frustrate Iranian entrenchment in the war-plagued country.

Israeli officials have been critical of what wa regarded as ‘American passivity’ in light of the Iranian aggression in the Middle East, especially after the massive Iranian attack on Saudi oil installations at the beginning of September 2019.

Just last week, Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi seemed to lament American passivity in light of Iran’s increasing aggression in the region.

During a security conference in Herzliya, Kohavi was unusually blunt over the war against Iran when he said the following: “it would be better if we weren’t the only ones responding to them” - meaning Iran.

“In recent years, Iran has changed its policies and is much more active, and there’s no response, there’s no retaliation, there are no reprisals,” Kohavi added after making clear he was talking about the massive Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities.

It came therefore as no surprise that the Israeli government reacted with satisfaction to the American military action against one of Iran’s proxies.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz even said on Monday that the US airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah were “a turning point in regional reality against the conduct of Iran and its puppets.”

While the US military action against Kataib Hezbollah, an organization with 30.000 fighters at its disposal, marked the first time in the past decade that the United States has carried out attacks against a Shiite force in the Middle East, it remains yet to be seen if this is indeed “a turning point in regional reality” as Katz claims.

The Trump Administration has made it clear it was only protecting US national interests and wanted to restore deterrence vis a vis Iran and its proxies.

The Administration has also repeatedly emphasized it doesn’t want to drag the US military into what Trump calls “endless wars” and certainly not into a war with Iran.

That’s why the Americans opted for their so-called ‘maximal pressure’ campaign of political pressure combined with heavy sanctions which have already cost Iran $200 billion over the past one and a half year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani revealed on Tuesday.

So far the Iranians give the impression they aren’t overly impressed by the attacks on their Iraqi ally, although they condemned the attacks as an act of terror.

The only thing Soleimani has done to limit the ability to hurt the Popular Mobilization Force (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) militias is ordering them to remove ballistic missiles from military bases.

That order came before the American strikes and seemed to be directed at Israel, since it has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against the Iranians and their proxies in both Syria and Iraq.

A close aide to Soleimani reportedly told al-Hashd al-Shaabi to load the missiles on civilian trucks and to disperse them and their launchers in populated areas, including Baghdad.

Another thing Soleimani apparently did after the American strikes, was to mobilize Iraqi politicians with anti-American tendencies who are to initiate legislation that would make the American presence in Iraq unlawful.

A large number of Iraqi lawmakers have already demanded that the Iraqi government terminate an agreement that allows the US to have a constant presence in Iraq, while the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, winner of the last Iraqi election, vowed to work with al-Hashd al-Shaabi to drive the US out of Iraq.

The attack on the American embassy in Baghdad, a heavily fortified and guarded compound, was another indication Soleimani and Iraqi leaders are now working together to expel US forces from Iraq.

Most participants in the attack on the compound in the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad were members of al-Hashd al-Shaabi and they take their orders from Soleimani.

Trump has now warned Iran and the Iraqi government that he knows who’s behind the attacks on American facilities in Iraq and that they will be held fully responsible for any new attack.

In addition, the President demanded that Iraq take measures to protect the US embassy, An Administration official made clear that the US would hold Iran responsible for any further attack on American targets in Iraq.