The aftermath of the US attack on Iraq

Baghdad's government faces a renewed crisis despite efforts to de-escalate.

It became clear that since receiving news of the bombing of the Al-Burj 22 base northeast of Jordan, which resulted in the deaths of three American soldiers and the injuries of dozens, the US administration has delineated the scope of its response through statements made at the time by Pentagon Deputy Spokesperson Sabrina Singh. She indicated the involvement of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades in the operation, thus avoiding direct accusations against Iran, except for its role as a financier and supporter of the armed faction, refraining from accusing it as the orchestrator of the attack.

The Hezbollah Brigades launched their first attack on American bases in Iraq and Syria on January 28 of this year, marking the first of more than 175 such attacks that resulted in American casualties. This situation presented the Biden administration, entering its election year, with a situation where it had to carry out a significant response while avoiding escalation beyond Gaza simultaneously. Consequently, they struck 85 targets with 125 ammunition rounds, resulting in the deaths of over 30 militants from factions in Iraq and Syria.

Despite the attackers’ ties to the Iranian side and the targeting of facilities affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, the extensive attack did not result in the killing of any Iranian military leaders. Instead, the US command apparently granted a 5-day grace period to evacuate the facilities of Iranian elements before launching this broader attack, which mainly focused on the Akashat area and the region stretching between the Iraqi city of Al-Qa’im and Albu Kamal in Syria. This area is vital for the Hezbollah Brigades and the Al-Tafuf Brigade under its umbrella, known for significant movements related to arms or drug smuggling.

From the beginning, the American side sought restraint compared to the scale of attacks on its forces and avoided escalation in the face of these intensified attacks, only carrying out some attacks justified in the eyes of the American administration, such as the previous targeting of Hezbollah elements in response to the faction’s use of short-range ballistic missiles in its attack on the Ain al-Assad base, or targeting Abu Taqwa al-Sa’idi, a leader in the Al-Nujaba Movement, for his involvement in several attacks on US forces and his responsibility for distributing drones and advanced weapons to factions. Alongside this was the strike in Kirkuk targeting elements of the Al-Nujaba Movement, which deterred an impending attack the movement had planned.

The American strike failed to deter the armed factions, halt their activities, or curb them and those behind them to the extent that it desired. Instead, it aimed to control the escalation and return it to the confines of limited confrontations, on the condition that future faction attacks do not target American soldiers or use advanced weapons, making them inevitably subject to retaliation unless they accept the “symbolic” strikes that factions launch. These seem to be the tactics and psyche adopted by the American administration since the involvement of the Iraqi front in the war on Gaza following the Al-Ma’adan Hospital incident.

The weakest link in this scenario remains the Iraqi government, which is facing a severe dilemma and embarrassment. While it had demanded an end to the international coalition’s mission a day after the killing of the leader, Abu Taqwa al-Sa’idi, the recent American strike has put Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani in an even bigger dilemma.

The official Iraqi statements considered the recent American strike to have targeted positions of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Baghdad’s government declared three days of mourning, considering it a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and security, and lodged a protest note with the US embassy in Baghdad. In contrast, it was notable that the political forces forming the ruling coalition, some of which have armed factions, still avoided escalation rhetoric. They rejected the violation of Iraqi sovereignty by US forces but, at the same time, refused the strikes on Iraqi military bases housing American advisors. They supported the ongoing dialogue between Baghdad and Washington regarding the withdrawal of US forces. This is unlike the Al-Nujaba Movement, which leads what is known as the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq,” which does not participate in this alliance and constantly declares its intention to strike military bases.

Today, the Prime Minister is being urged by the Americans to deter non-state actors on its territory targeting US forces, as described by John Kirby, the US National Security Advisor, in contrast to Iranian demands to reduce American presence in Iraq. This comes amidst divisions within the Shiite forces themselves, between those who want to expel US forces and those seeking not to completely disengage from Iraq.

A conflicting interest equation will inevitably constrain the Prime Minister, who today faces a situation no different from his predecessors, amidst the dominance of external forces and the increasing activity of non-state actors. It is unknown whether these actors will cease their military operations upon the cessation of the war on Gaza or exploit the security vacuum that the American withdrawal from Iraq will create, which seems distant so far. However, ultimately, the Prime Minister’s recent statement about ending the coalition’s mission with the aim of removing all justifications for attacks on its advisors reveals a crisis in state management in Iraq, amidst the multiplicity of parties and balances it tries to maintain. These decisions may not succeed as long as they do not consider the interests of the state as much as they cater to the interests—which often conflict—of external and internal parties, represented by non-state forces.

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