Baghdad on edge as US, Iran face off in Iraq


For many Iraqis, the main fear now will be the prospect that their country will be the battleground in a protracted showdown between the United States and Iran.

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s prime minister condemned on Friday the US killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and said it would “light the fuse” of war.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh meanwhile called for restraint.

“We call on everyone to restrain themselves,” Saleh said in a statement, characterising the strike as an “aggression” and saying Iraq would be destabilised if “voices of reason” did not prevail.

The United States killed Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force and architect of Iran’s spreading military influence in the Middle East, in a strike at Baghdad airport. Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed. Both men were designated terrorists by the US government.

“The assassination of an Iraqi military commander who holds an official position is considered aggression on Iraq … and the liquidation of leading Iraqi figures or those from a brotherly country on Iraqi soil is a massive breach of sovereignty,” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said concerning the killing of Muhandis.

Abdul Mahdi, whose government has the backing of Iran, said in a statement the US air strike was “a dangerous escalation that will light the fuse of a destructive war in Iraq, the region, and the world.”

The prime minister resigned in November due to anti-government protests, but remains in office in a caretaker capacity. At least 450 people have been killed in the unrest, some which was driven by anger at Iranian influence in Iraq.

The prime minister said the US strike violated terms of the US military presence in Iraq, adding that US troops were exclusively in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces and fight Islamic State within the framework of a global coalition.

Abdul Mahdi called on parliament to convene an extraordinary session to “take legislative steps and necessary provisions to safeguard Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty.”

Reckless arrogance

Although Abdul Mahdi did not specify what those provisions would entail, some officials and parliamentarians have called for steps to expel US troops from Iraq. Iraq’s deputy parliament speaker said an emergency parliament session is set for Saturday to discuss the US airstrike in Baghdad.

Hassan al-Kaabi says it is time to put an end to “US recklessness and arrogance,” adding that Saturday’s session will be dedicated to taking “decisive decisions that put an end to US presence inside Iraq.”

Abdul Mahdi, whose government has support from Iran’s and Tehran-backed Iraqi allies, described Soleimani and Muhandis as “huge symbols of the victory against Islamic State terrorists.”

Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias led by Muhandis, helped security forces retake a third of Iraq from Islamic State. The grouping’s troops were later incorporated into Iraq’s official armed forces.

Muhandis’ death is especially significant due to his high rank within Iraq’s security infrastructure.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said Muhandis was responsible for the storming of the US embassy compound in Baghdad last week. Pompeo said the attack was “orchestrated by terrorists,” one of whom he specifically named as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who he identified as second-in-command of the PMF.

Thousands of supporters of Iraqi armed factions close to Iran had massed at the embassy in outrage over US air strikes that killed 25 pro-Iran fighters.

Those air strikes were in retaliation for a series of rocket attacks on US-occupied facilities in Iraq over the past two months that were blamed on Shiite militia Kataeb Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors. One of those attacks left an American civilian contractor dead and exhausted what US officials called President Donald Trump’s “strategic patience” with Tehran.

Another Iraqi militia commander, Hadi al-Amiri, called on all Iraqi factions to unite and expel foreign troops, hours after reports of Soleimani’s death were confirmed.

“We call on all national forces to unify their stance in order to expel foreign troops whose presence has become pointless in Iraq,” state TV quoted Amiri, who leads the powerful Iran-backed Badr Organisation militia and fought on Iran’s side in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

A Farsi speaker who spent more than two decades fighting Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran, Amiri also leads a political bloc representing militia groups that has the second-largest number of seats in parliament.


Meanwhile Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment the Marjaiyah, which holds massive influence over public opinion in Shiite-majority Iraq, also weighed in.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani on Friday condemned the US strike as a “wanton attack” on the country. In his weekly sermon delivered by his representative in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, Sistani said the raid amounted to a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”

Following the prayers, hundreds of male worshippers began chanting “No to America!”

And Iraq’s militia leader turned populist politician Moqtada Sadr, who had reportedly traveled to Iran after news of Soleimani’s death, announced he was reactivating his notoriously anti-American force nearly a decade after he dissolved it.

The “Mahdi Army” had gained notoriety for spearheading the first major armed confrontation against US-led forces in Iraq from the Shia community.

Taking to Twitter, Sadr ordered “fighters, particularly those from the Mahdi Army, to be ready” following the strike.

Although many in Iraq harbour a deep distrust of the US – due to the calamitous state in which Washington left the country following its invasion in 2003 – there is also widespread anger at Tehran’s growing influence in the country.

Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets since Oct. 1 to condemn, among other things, militias and their Iranian patrons that support Abdul Mahdi’s government, accusing the government of placing their loyalty to patrons in Tehran over their responsibility for Iraq and its people.

The protesters have demanded an overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty. Many Iraqis blame Iran for the deaths of hundreds of people during protests in the past months, and the violent suppression of their calls for change in the country.

For many Iraqis, the main fear now will be the prospect that their country will be the battleground in a protracted showdown between the United States and Iran.

Image: Middle East Online

Article: Middle East Online