Iraq scrambles to distance itself from attack on Saudi oil facilities

Although the PMF leadership vowed to abide by government directions, some militia leaders promised to stand by Iran and fight the United States.
Wednesday 18/09/2019
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in Riyadh, April 17. (Saudi Royal Court via Reuters)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in Riyadh, April 17. (Saudi Royal Court via Reuters)

LONDON - In three statements over as many days, Iraq tried to distance itself from an attack against Saudi oil facilities amid speculation that the strike may have been carried out by Iraqi militias loyal to Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Baghdad “cannot possibly cause harm to any of its neighbours,” a statement from the Iraqi leader’s office said.

“The (Iraqi) government has a clear vision on how to deal with internal and external challenges. We work hard to uphold rule of law and confine arms to the state. We stressed that our balanced policy serves the stability of Iraq and all the countries of the region,” read the statement.

A day earlier, Abdul-Mahdi said he had a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, a readout by the Iraqi prime minister’s office said, backed Baghdad’s assertion that the drone strikes September 14 against Saudi Arabia were not launched from Iraqi territories.

“On his part, the US Secretary of State said the information they have confirms the Iraqi government’s statement that its territory was not used to carry out this attack,” read the September 16 statement.

Abdul-Mahdi denied Iraq’s involvement in the attack on the day after the attack, saying: “Iraq is constitutionally committed to preventing any use of its soil to attack its neighbours.”

Houthi rebels, who are at war with Riyadh in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia but the Wall Street Journal reported that US and Saudi officials were investigating the possibility the attack involved missiles fired from Iraq or Iran.

US officials said intelligence assessments pointed towards Iran, not Yemen, as the source of the attack.

Iran denied direct involvement in the attack but said it supported it. “The Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defence,” said Iranian President Hassan Rohani

Abdul-Mahdi is under pressure to keep Iran-backed militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), under government control, especially in the event of a conflict between the United States and Iran.

Although the PMF leadership vowed to abide by government directions, some militia leaders also promised to stand by Iran and fight the United States.

Several recent unclaimed attacks against PMF positions near the Syrian border, thought to be carried out by Israel in its fight against Iranian proxies, escalated tension and widened political divisions in Iraq.

On one side is the camp led by influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc has the largest number of seats in parliament. He repeatedly warned Iraqi militias against “irresponsible” action that would harm Iraq and called for the withdrawal of Iraqi militias from Syria.

On the opposing side are Iranian regime loyalists who advocate defending Iran and threaten the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran-backed fighters near the Iraqi border in Syria were reportedly attacked with unidentified aircraft on September 17.

The attacks on Saudi Arabia, though not originating from Iraqi territory, highlight concerns on how the PMF would react should a conflict between Iran and the United States or Israel break out. 

“Regional challenges facing Iraq will make it even more difficult for Adel Abdul-Mahdi to bring the (militias) under control,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told the Associated Press.

The Iraqi is government is keen not to appear as taking sides in the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said it would not join a US-led maritime mission to protect commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and other areas. Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahhaf said Baghdad rejects any participation by Israel in the coalition, adding that Gulf security in was the responsibility of Gulf countries.

The United States has not confirmed Israeli participation in the maritime mission but countries named to be included are: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the United Kingdom and Australia.

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