US hits key allies in Iraq

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KARBALA, Iraq – U.S. officials say recent airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have dealt a crushing blow to a dangerous enemy: Iran. They have punished Iran’s notorious Quds Force and allied militias for deadly attacks on US troops, they say, and sent a strong message of deterrence.

But in Iraq, the strikes have provoked a very different response – and put their government, a key regional partner for the United States, in a difficult position. Many here see in them the latest US attack on Iraqi independence, a threat to fragile stability and a willful disregard for a complex reality: While many of the country’s Shiite militias are supported by Iran, they are also heavily linked to Iraq. society, politics and government.

After last week’s US strike in central Baghdad that killed the head of the Kataib Hezbollah militia, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister issued a statement saying that US forces “endanger civilian peace, goes against the sovereignty of Iraq, and disregards the safety and life of our citizens. “

There was more anger at Wednesday’s funeral in the holy city of Karbala for 17 more slain militiamen, attended by local politicians, religious leaders and members of the country’s military, where relatives highlighted the militia’s service to Iraq. .

Mohammed Qadim Abed Hamza held a photo of his 60-year-old father, Kadhim Abed al-Hamza, who was killed in US strikes. The United States, he said, wants to “weaken” the Iraqi militias that were formed to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group almost a decade ago. His father joined at the start of that fight, at the urging of Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader. So did Mohammed, who is now 29, and three of his brothers.

Pressure is building on the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, to confront the United States and to speed up negotiations aimed at ending the US military presence in Iraq. For the Biden administration, Iraq’s response illustrates the challenges of maintaining a security partnership with Baghdad while containing the rapidly spreading fallout from Israel’s war in Gaza and halting attacks by groups linked to the Iraqi government.

Attacks on US bases in Iraq and elsewhere began to increase in October, as Iran-backed groups said they would retaliate for Israel’s offensive in Gaza. In Iraq, the attacks disrupted a rare period of calm that had existed since the fall of 2022, when Sudani took office.

On January 28, three US soldiers were killed in an attack on a base in Jordan near the Syrian border. Five days later, on February 2, the Biden administration struck targets in Syria and in the western Iraqi towns of al-Qaim and Akashat.

For a while, there was hope that the increase could be sustained. The United States had chosen not to strike Iran directly. And Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Iranian-backed militant groups, pledged on January 30 to halt its attacks on American troops to avoid “embarrassing” the Iraqi government.

But then came the US drone strike in Baghdad last week that killed Abu Baqir al-Saedi, Kataib Hezbollah’s top commander. Two days later, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, the umbrella group that includes Kataib Hezbollah, announced that they would begin attacks on US targets.

The Americans “blame Iran, and they talk about Iran,” said Farhad Alaaldin, a foreign affairs adviser to Sudani. “But they carry out attacks in Iraq. “

“Iraq sees America as a strategic partner and not an enemy,” he said. “We fear that pushing Iraq to the brink is the wrong strategy.” “

While the groups that the United States has targeted for support from Iran, they also belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group for militias that has drawn thousands of volunteers to fight against the State. Islamic.

The groups were formally introduced to the government in 2016. PMF members receive salaries, pensions, weapons and other benefits and answer to the Iraqi prime minister.

Saedi showed the overlapping roles. As a leader in Kataib Hezbollah, an affiliate of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that was created after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he oversaw Syrian operations for the militia and he was responsible for “directly planning and participating in attacks” on US troops, according to US Central Command.

But in Iraq, Saedi was also “basically a government employee,” said Hussein Mounes, a member of parliament here and head of Huquq, a political party affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah. He had a badge identifying him as a member of the PMF and even a “government car,” Mounes said.

“His wife, his children, they are all Iraqis going to Iraqi schools,” he said. “The problem with the United States is that they consider whoever is defending the country as Iran.”

US officials sometimes struggle with the differences. After Saedi was killed, the Pentagon’s press secretary pushed back against the idea that the US military had targeted an Iraqi government official.

“As we conduct these strikes, we are very much targeting Iranian-backed proxy groups and not PMF,” Air Force Chief of Staff Pat Ryder told reporters. When asked to clarify, he said: “as I understand it, the people we are hitting are not part of the PMF. “

The drone strike on Tower 22 in Jordan caused the first death of US service members in Iraq or Syria since 2020. US officials say their response targeted two groups: Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which they say is responsible for attacks on US facilities since October 7.

But the head of another group that targeted US strikes, the Tafuf Brigade, which also belongs to the PMF, said that men under his command had not participated in attacks against the United States. The leader, Qassim Muslih, told the Washington Post that Washington had made a mistake in hitting his group in Akashat.

“I believe there is inaccurate information from the CIA and US military intelligence,” he said, speaking as the last guests left the funerals in Karbala. Among the dead, he said, there were nurses who worked in a medical unit, a cook, a baker and security guards.

Renad Mansour, a senior researcher at Chatham House who has studied Iraqi militias, said that the Tafuf Brigade, while it was a military force, was not known to be on the front line of attacks against the United States.

A senior US defense official, asked about the US strikes on Akasha, said the area was linked to Iran-backed groups that had participated in attacks against US facilities. “He’s a legitimate target,” the official said.

US officials say Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has less control over militias in Iraq than it did under former commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in an early US airstrike in 2020. They now believe that the IRGC can set limits for the militias, but under the leadership of Soleimani. in their place, Ismail Qaani, they work more independently.

Iraq was still reeling from the impact of the Trump administration’s decision to kill Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Kataib Hezbollah and the deputy director of the PMF, Mansour said. Their deaths led to a “dynamic insurgency” in Iraq, with militias increasingly using violence for domestic political bargaining or to push to leave the United States.

For the militias, he said, “there is a logic to this violence,” which was not so far as declaring war. But the United States did not see it that way. If there were unspoken ground rules, he said, they broke the three army reservists, all members of a unit based in Georgia, killed them.

Mounes, the member of parliament, called it a “blocking equation”, but said the Iraqi “fashion of resistance” felt that their demands were not being met and that the equation has been so useful.

“We are talking about war and weapons,” he said. “It’s not a romantic relationship. “

Sudani, the prime minister, has been left to deal with the fallout, including US strikes in his country’s capital and intense demands to withdraw American troops.

“There is some complexity in Iraqi society, which we understand,” said a senior US defense official. “We understand that the Sudanese Prime Minister, who we consider a partner, must lead these complexities,” the official continued. changing that responsibility” for the Iraqi government to prevent violence against US personnel there.

“We’ve been obsessed with the divorce between the Iraqi security structure and these militias for ten years,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), in an interview last week. “My sense is that the Iraqi government has just been completely dependent on the militias despite our repeated offers to help them become independent. “

Analysts and Iraqi officials said there is little chance that Sudani would confront the militias, given his weak position but also his government’s emphasis on stability and economic development for Iraq. Some of the most powerful militias also want to avoid a ban that would threaten their growing political and economic situation.

The Iraqi government “just wants this to be over,” Mansour said.

Before the latest escalations, he said, Sudani was ready to “achieve something very important: to pull back this American pull” — an outcome the Biden administration was also interested in. Formal talks began about ‘ withdrawal of US-led coalition troops in January.

The challenge since the start of the Gaza war is that the administration cannot be seen to “withdraw and retreat in a moment of weakness.”

“This is all planned out,” he said. “They want a well-designed scene, where they shake hands. “

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