The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Quds Force, by a U.S. air raid was met by yet another retaliation this Sunday, 22 January 2020, as the U.S. Embassy, located in Baghdad’s Green Zone, became a target for rocket fire. An initial military statement by the US Joint Operations Command indicated that at least five katyusha rockets had crashed, with one rocket hitting the embassy cafeteria. Top U.S. commander for the Middle East, General Frank Mckenzie highlighted that although the attack minorly injured one U.S. national, it did not otherwise severely hurt other U.S. military members. This is the third attack on the U.S. Embassy in this month alone; this attack, in particular, is significant as it was the first time the building had been hit directly. The perpetrators are still largely unknown, though the U.S. has blamed Iran-backed military factions in Iraq.
In response to the rocket strike, the U.S. State Department called on the “Government of Iraq to fulfil its obligations to protect our diplomatic facilities.” With Iraq playing host to the consequences of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, this event may only serve to complicate and destabilise the U.S.-Iraq relationship. Ex-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned these acts of “aggression,” which he noted could “drag Iraq into becoming a war zone” – a violation of promises determining that the U.S. would not utilise its post-2014 presence in Iraq for such actions. But in many ways, it has already devastated Iraq and the U.S.-Iraq relationship.
Alongside the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group, and 24 Iraqi fighters were killed during the U.S. strike against General Soleimani. Though designated by the U.S. as an international terrorist, al-Muhandis was also considered a top-level Iraqi security official. Over 16 years ago, the American invasion of Iraq had not only cost nearly US$1 trillion and the lives of 5,000 Americans but displaced four million people from Iraq and killed an average of 100 people daily. With this and their eight-year war with Iran still fresh in mind, Iraq President Barham Salih noted that “Iraq should never serve as a gate for others…[it] should not fight a war, paid for by Iraqi resources and Iraqi lives, for others”.
In failing to notify and coordinate the attack with the Iraqi government, the U.S. has breached their relationship with Iraq, with many civilians claiming that it was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. This is the reason anti-American demonstrations have been organised by influential Iraqi Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. With aims of pressuring U.S. troops to leave Iraq, thousands of protesters gathered on Friday, 24 January, to march. Revived tensions in Iraqi politics particularly due to the ballistic missile attacks on two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops and the recent targeting of the Embassy, however, have delayed the formation of a new government in Iraq. Prior to this, al-Sadr and his supporters were involved with anti-government protests that began in October 2019 over government corruption, high unemployment rates, as well as foreign influence, particularly that of Iran’s, over Iraqi politics. The aims of the demonstrations are thus more intrinsically linked than exhibited.
On 5 January, the Iraqi Parliament decided to back a non-binding resolution, calling on all foreign troops, including 5,200 U.S. soldiers, to leave the country, as reported by Al Jazeera. Speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Mohamad al-Halbousi, expressed his support for the demonstrators’ cause citing that “the government has failed and needs to put in reforms right now” (as reported by Al Jazeera correspondent, Khan). The situation and the bid for sovereignty from foreign influence, however, does not seem as easily resolved as the Trump administration does not intend to pull their troops out of Iraq. Instead, Washington threatened Iraq with crippling sanctions that could lead to further “unemployment, poverty, misery, lack of services, and political and social instability,” potentially undermining the progress made by earlier demonstrations, according to Senior Fellow at Brookings, Vanda Felbab-Brown.
Even though many Iraqi leaders still depend on U.S. military forces for training and security, there is little indication that the U.S. is utilising their relations with Iraq to “push [them] in a better direction,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, former C.I.A. official and expert of Iraq and Iran at the American Enterprise Institute. Emma Sky, a former adviser to American forces in Iraq added that the U.S. “will be hard pressed to justify a continued presence in Iraq because of the perception that its objectives are not aimed at promoting a stable Iraq, but containing [it].”
Earlier negotiations with militia to cease the siege of and fires set to the embassy had put President Mahdi’s position on the line as the militia leaders were only persuaded to withdraw their forces after threatening to “leave his job…[and] the country to chaos,” according to Iraqi officials familiar with the exchanges. This comes after Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in November, whereupon “he had told armed groups to stop these kinds of attacks on the U.S. embassy, but to no avail,” Iraq political analyst, Wathiq al-Hashemi, stated. The U.S. State Department’s call for the Iraqi government to protect their diplomatic facilities is a difficult matter then, especially since it threatens Iraqi governance.
However, even if the U.S. troops were to withdraw, there is little suggestion that limited reforms will amount to wide scale change in governance as the deeply rooted issues protesters demand to be resolved go beyond the current government’s year-old rule. In resolving this, there have been two responses by Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, who is involved with the coalition that won the most seats in the previous year’s elections, suggested in a statement that snap elections, with “fresh polls…monitored by international experts,” be held. Alternatively, al-Sadr urged the suspension of parliamentary membership and the boycotting of sessions till the protesters’ demands were met. Khan, a correspondent at Al Jazeera noted that three major blocs, indeed, boycotted sessions in October last year due to the government’s lack of an “agenda it could implement.” At this time, there was a glimmer of hope, seeing as previous Prime Minister, and current caretaker, Mahdi’s cabinet issued a decree listing over a dozen planned reforms including “land distributions, military enlistment and increased welfare stipends for needy families,” as reported by the AFP news agency.
This measure of progress, which acts as a start to the protester’s demands, does not compromise the Iraq government. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran heighten, it may prove to be a more constructive path than the “total overhaul of the Iraqi political system,” according to Khan. But, as the latest developments in U.S. and Iran relations threaten to stifle their progress, it is vital that attention be brought to non-violent resolutions between U.S. and Iran, as well as talks be held between U.S. and Iraq regarding their involvement within the country. But as of now, the Iraqi public are not being reassured of their safety, causing them to take to the streets. If discussions and actions are delayed any longer, many more civilians may get hurt, not only in retaliatory attacks by the U.S. and Iran, but the protests which are becoming increasingly violent.
In spite of it being their “constitutional right” to demonstrate peacefully, according to Kurdish leader, Nechivran Barzani, local authorities have been accused by rights groups for using “excessive force” against the protesters, killing over 500 people with the firing of tear gas, live rounds, and rubber bullets since October. Though this has incited reprisal on behalf of some protesters, with “eight party buildings and 51 public and private institutions [being] set on fire during the demonstrations,” as noted by Saad Maan, a spokesman for Iraq’s interior ministry, many more have been hurt by the actions of the security forces.
Actors and organisations both local and political have denounced the violence of the protests, with the President Salih pressing security forces to protect the rights of all Iraqis and Amnesty calling on Iraq’s authorities to “immediately end the unlawful blocking of access to the internet” and allow them to assemble without fear of repercussion.” The UN’s urging of Iraq to “rapidly and transparently investigate force used by anti-riot police in clashes with protesters” has been met by the admission of Iraq’s military that they had indeed used “excessive force” against the demonstrators. This follows Mahdi who ordered the replacement of the security forces with the federal police, further calling on intelligence services to “open an investigation into the incident,” according to the AFP news agency. It is important that these are carried through, and that politicians are prevented from returning to previous attitudes, where Mahdi had earlier insisted that security forces had been acting in alignment with international standards.
Throughout all of this, the Iranian government, who are under fire amongst protesters for their infringement of Iraq sovereignty, has insisted that “enemies” were “trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad amid the unrest,” as tweeted by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The Iranian government has repeatedly cited their support for Iraq, suggesting that it would continue to ease tensions within the Gulf by improving their relations with its Gulf Arab neighbours, noted Khan. With pro-Iranian militias denying any contribution to last week’s attack, Ali Rabiei, an Iranian government spokesperson, called on Iraqis to “show restraint.” Amidst the growing violence and unrest, however, how long should Iraq have to withstand the consequences of a deteriorating U.S.-Iran relationship? There needs to be direct conversation between these three countries, particularly in relation to the reliance of violence in attempts to protect oneself, as well as the use of Iraqi ground as host to the U.S. and Iran’s attacks. The aid of an arbiter may help in this situation, but only if each country is willing to cease violence and attacks, which may prove to be difficult as the U.S. and Iran relationship is also implicated by recent developments in their nuclear agreement. These countries have a responsibility to ensure the safety of both their foreign policy, but most importantly their people.