Iraqis brace for escalation on Soleimani killing’s anniversary

Sources close to Iran-backed militias previously said the use of rockets to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday evening was a preparatory test for more severe attacks.
Friday 20/11/2020
A demonstrator holds a picture of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed last year. (REUTERS)
A demonstrator holds a picture of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed last year. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD – Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on the Iraqi government to prepare for the worst-case scenario — escalation with Iran-backed Shia militias that could be looking to settle scores with the United States.

“The missile attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad are a dangerous escalation by unruly armed militias,” said Zebari, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party who previously served as foreign minister,, adding that “the worst will come on the first anniversary of the killing of Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 3, 2019.”

Zebari called on the Iraqi government to “be prepared for the worst-case scenario.”

Earlier this week, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami said that his country would avenge Soleimani’s killers on the ground, adding, “We are sure that the sons of Iraq will avenge the blood of Muhandis.”

According to Zebari, who is familiar with Iraq’s national and international affairs, Iran is preparing for a surprise on the first anniversary of the American operation that resulted in the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force Soleimani and the field commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Muhandis, in a raid near Baghdad airport.

Sources close to Iran-backed militias previously said the use of rockets to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday evening was a preparatory test for more severe attacks.

Iran’s proxies and militias in Iraq have recently stopped concealing their ties with Tehran and began publicising them, seemingly in an attempt to terrorise and intimidate their political partners and rivals in the country.

As they flex their muscles, Iran-backed agents have rebuffed calls by Sunnis and Kurds for appeasement, as well as warnings that anti-Americanism will greatly harm Iraq’s interests.

In view of the escalating violence, Sunnis and Kurds have begun questioning their role in the political process, in a country that tolerates militias, their daily attacks on diplomatic missions and their role in triggering economic collapse, internal crises and endless foreign conflicts.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq have remained elusive, however, denying involvement in any attack against US interests that results in casualties.

Last Tuesday, Iran-backed militias carried out their fiercest attack on the US Embassy in months, ending an unannounced “truce” that had lasted for several weeks.

While the militias have long targeted the US embassy in Baghdad regularly, they do not claim official responsibility for these operations for fear of triggering an American response or stirring domestic popular anger.

To evade responsibility, the militias have established numerous fake organisations whose task is to claim attacks on the US Embassy.

Militia-controlled sites in Iraq celebrated on Tuesday evening the news of the bombing of the US Embassy in Baghdad, applauding the use of new missile brands that are thought to have been developed in Iran.

The Ahl al-Kahf militia, formed by Al-Nujaba militia led by Akram al-Kaabi, claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attacks, which it said came in response to the US Army’s arrest of three of its members in the city of Fallujah about 50 kilometres west of Baghdad.

The celebratory coverage in militia-run media continued for about two hours. It quickly stopped, however, when the government security media unit announced six Iraqi civilians, including a child, had been killed as a result of the rockets that hit Baghdad’s Green Zone.

When the security media unit explained the details of the missile attack, it became clear that the seven missiles had all missed their targets.

According to the official announcement, one of the rockets landed in Al-Zawra Park adjacent to the Green Zone, while another landed near the health ministry in Al-Bab Al-Muzam, far from the US Embassy.

As soon as the casualties were reported by official media and social media, ​​the Shia militias stopped celebrating and painstakingly sought to distance themselves from the killings.

They first argued that the Iraqi casualties were not actually caused by the missiles, but by American air defence fire launched to repel the attack.

Then, they put forward a “conspiracy plot” supposedly hatched by US President Donald Trump as a way to retain power after his election loss against Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Iraq’s militia-run media has continued to promote the theory that Trump ordered the bombing of his own country’s embassy in Baghdad to drag Iranians into an armed conflict that would keep him in power or as long as possible.

Observers say Iran-backed Shia militias’ attempts to shield themselves from the repercussions of their indiscriminate attacks on US interests in Iraq will backfire, tarnishing their image and that of Tehran among Iraqis.

Much of the Iraqi Shia public mocked the militias’ failed bombing operations, their confused media reactions and their predictable denial of responsibility over civilian casualties.

The militias’ attempts to justify their attacks no longer seem to persuade Iraqis, especially Shias, after their repeated deflections and contradictions. They are also now widely understood to be acting on behalf of Tehran.

On Wednesday evening, Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi led a ceremony to renew allegiance to Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organisation. Bloggers shared this news as clear evidence that some Iraqis are loyal to Iran rather than Iraq.

Others questioned why Amiri, who leads a bloc of about 50 deputies in the Iraqi parliament, allowed another country’s ambassador to lead a ceremony renewing allegiance to him as the leader of a militia that faced the risk of being dismantled years ago.