Iraq caught in US-Iran showdown amid concerns over ‘rogue militias’

Washington accused Tehran’s proxies in Iraq of being responsible for the rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone as part of a “campaign” stretching from Iraq to the Strait of Hormuz.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Security issues. A member of Iraqi federal police forces stands guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, May 20. (AFP)
Security issues. A member of Iraqi federal police forces stands guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, May 20. (AFP)

LONDON - Top Iraqi politicians, including pro-Iran figures, said they do not want Iraq to become a battleground in any conflict between the United States and Iran but many said they were concerned that “rogue” pro-Tehran militias may not keep to Baghdad’s desire to stay neutral.

Such concerns are likely to become more pressing after Washington accused Tehran, using proxies in Iraq, of being responsible for the May 19 rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone as part of a “campaign” stretching from Iraq to Yemen to the Strait of Hormuz. No group had claimed responsibility for the attack.

The United States also accused Iran of being behind the May 12 tanker bombings near the United Arab Emirates and the Trump administration announced plans to send an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East.

Both Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Iraqi President Barham Salih said they were in contact with US and Iranian officials to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran that might spill into Iraq.

Abdul-Mahdi said the Iraqi government is “transferring messages” between the United States and Iran to ease tensions. “We don’t stand by one side against the other,” Abdul-Mahdi said.

'Problems with some rogue elements' in Iraq

Salih said that Iraq had “enough of wars” over the past four decades. “Iraqis do not want to see this country yet again turn into a zone of proxy conflict,” Salih told CBS News.

Abdul-Mahdi and Salih met with other Iraqi politicians, including leaders of pro-Iran militias, to make sure that no attack is staged against US interests in the country. Iraq hosts more than 5,000 US troops.

Salih confirmed there are pro-Iran armed groups outside government control. “We do have problems with some rogue elements and the government is intent on putting those people under control,” said Salih. “We are telling everybody, cool it. This is not the place to have your battles.”

A source close to Abdul-Mahdi told Al-Monitor that the Iraqi prime minister “received assurances from the [Popular Mobilisation Forces] that it will not target US troops in Iraq but this will not stop other groups affiliated with Iran from targeting US interests in the country.”

The United States had, a few days earlier, ordered the evacuation of non-essential diplomatic personnel over unspecified threats it said were linked to Iran-backed militias in Iraq. The US warning prompted American energy company ExxonMobil to evacuate its employees from an oil field in southern Iraq.

Conflict 'would mark the end of Iraq'

Iraq’s major Shia militia leaders, including those backed by Tehran, distanced themselves from the Green Zone rocket attack and warned against turning Iraq into a battlefield between the United States and Iran.

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said any party that drags Iraq into the US-Iran conflict “would be the enemy of the Iraqi people.” He said such a conflict “would mark the end of Iraq” at a time “we need peace and reconstruction.”

Head of the Iran-backed Badr Organisation, Hadi al-Amiri, called on Iraqis to work “to keep Iraq and the region away from war. If war breaks out… it will burn everyone,” he warned.

The leader of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, Qais al-Khazali, said he was opposed to any action that “gives pretexts for war” because they would only “harm Iraq’s political, economic and security conditions.”

The Kataib Hezbollah militia said the rocket attack was “unjustified,” suggesting a third party was seeking to provoke war.

Iran proxies need 'explicit green light' 

It is unclear whether the position of the major pro-Iran Iraqi militia leaders is based on their keenness on self-preservation or it’s because they were not instructed by Tehran to attack US interests in Iraq at this point.

“The stakes are so high that Iranian proxies cannot act without an explicit green light” from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, analyst Karim Bitar told Agence France-Presse.

Mahmoud al-Hashemi, secretary of the Iraq Media Observatory, told Al-Monitor: “Positions remain unclear regarding a possible confrontation because Iran doesn’t want the factions to take any military action against the United States at this time. Rather, it wants to wait until the situation becomes clearer since Iran believes that, given the long borders between them, Iraq is important when it comes to strategy, trade and security.” 

By blaming Iran for the rocket attack, the United States suggested that it does not believe Tehran’s denial of responsibility. It also appears that Washington does not distinguish between major armed groups and “rogue militias.”

Does Iran call all the shots in Iraq? 

Iraqi military officials say they fear a US military operation against Iran would prompt Tehran to retaliate inside Iraq. “Iraqi forces are worried that American forces could be targeted by factions loyal to Iran,” a general at Iraq’s Defence Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press.

Iran itself fears being attacked from Iraq. Sayed al-Jayashi, a senior member of Iraq’s National Security Council, told the New York Times that Iran’s only request from Iraq was to prevent the United States from using Iraqi territory to attack Iran.

Some experts noted that Iran, despite its wide encroachment in the country, does not call all the shots in Iraq.

“Despite Tehran’s considerable influence in Baghdad, its ambitions in Iraq have repeatedly been thwarted,” wrote Aaron Magid in Foreign Policy. “To claim that Iran single-handedly dominates Iraq ignores the competing influences of multiple global powers, including the United States.”