Iran Uses Violence to Push US From Iraq01/23 06:18
BEIRUT (AP) -- Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from
neighboring Iraq, but the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi
militia commander in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort, stoking
anti-American feelings that Tehran hopes to exploit to help realize the goal.
The Jan. 3 killing has led Iraq's parliament to call for the ouster of U.S.
troops, but there are many lingering questions over whether Iran will be able
to capitalize on the sentiment.
An early test will be a "million-man" demonstration against the American
presence, called for by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and scheduled
It is not clear whether the protesters will try to recreate a New Year's Eve
attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militias in
the wake of U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen along the border with
Syria. Iran might simply try to use the march to telegraph its intention to
keep up the pressure on U.S. troops in Iraq.
But experts say Iran can be counted on to try to seize what it sees as an
opportunity to push its agenda in Iraq, despite an ongoing mass uprising that
is targeting government corruption as well as Iranian influence in the country.
"Iran is unconstrained by considerations of Iraqi sovereignty, domestic
public opinion, or legality when compared to the Western democracies," said
David Des Roches, an expert with The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"This is Iran's strategic advantage; they should be expected to press it."
A withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and
Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-U.S. militias
that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi
lawmakers sympathetic to its cause.
Despite usually trying to keep attacks at a level below what might provoke
an American response, Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets
at a military base in Kirkuk in December, killing a U.S. contractor and
wounding several U.S. and Iraqi troops. The U.S. responded first with deadly
airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria, then
followed with the Jan. 3 drone attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran's
most powerful military officer, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi
al-Muhandis as they left Baghdad's airport.
The severity of the U.S. response surprised Iran and others, and it had the
unanticipated result of bolstering Tehran's political approach by prompting the
Iraqi parliament to pass the nonbinding resolution pushed by pro-Iran political
factions calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country. In
response, President Donald Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq.
"What they want to do is get rid of U.S. troops in what they see as a
legitimate political manner," said Dina Esfandiary, a London-based expert with
The Century Foundation think tank. "If Iraqis themselves are voting out U.S.
troops, it looks a lot better for Iran than if Iran is a puppet master in Iraq
trying to get rid of them --- and on top of that it would be a more lasting
The legitimacy of the resolution is a matter of dispute. Not only was the
session boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers and many Sunnis, but there also are
questions of whether Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has the ability to carry
it out. Abdul-Mahdi resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests but
remains in a caretaker role.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly rejected the call for the
troops' removal, instead saying Washington would "continue the conversation
with the Iraqis about what the right structure is."
Abdul-Mahdi strongly supported the resolution, but since then has said it
will be up to the next government to deal with the issue, and there are
indications he has been working behind the scenes to help keep foreign troops
in the country.
After closed-door meetings with German diplomats last week, German Foreign
Minister Heiko Maas said the prime minister had assured them that he had "great
interest" in keeping the Bundeswehr military contingent and others part of the
anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq.
The U.S., meantime, said it had resumed joint operations with Iraqi forces,
albeit on a more limited basis than before.
Trump met Iraqi President Barham Saleh on Wednesday on the sidelines of the
World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, and said Washington and Baghdad have
had "a very good relationship" and that the two countries had a "host of very
difficult things to discuss." Saleh said they have shared common interests
including the fight against extremism, regional stability and an independent
Asked about the plan for U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump said, "We'll see what
In a sign that bodes well for NATO's continuing mission in the country,
Iraq's deputy foreign minister went to Brussels last week for talks with
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the alliance's presence in Iraq.
The mixed message of publicly calling for the troops to go but privately
wanting them to stay is an indication of Iran's strong influence, particularly
among its fellow Shiite Muslims, Des Roches said.
"For any Iraqi politician in Baghdad --- particularly a Shia politician ---
to defy Iran openly is to risk political as well as physical death," he said.
"So we shouldn't be surprised if the public and the private lines espoused by
Iraqi politicians differ."
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the
invitation of the government to help battle the Islamic State after the
extremist group seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. A
U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including
Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year
campaign. There are currently some 5,200 American troops in the country.
Even before the drone strike, there were growing calls in nationwide
protests across sectarian lines, which started in October centered in Baghdad's
Tahrir Square, for the end of all foreign influence in the country. The
demonstrations also targeted government corruption and poor public services.
The rejection of Iranian influence over Iraqi state affairs has been a core
component of the movement, and pro-Iranian militias have targeted those
demonstrations along with Iraqi security forces, killing hundreds and injuring
thousands. Protesters fear that with the focus on the push for the U.S. troop
withdrawal in response to the attack that killed Soleimani, they may be even
easier targets for those forces and that their message will be lost.
"I think Iraq has had enough of having to deal with the Americans and the
Iranians alike," Esfandiary said. "But the assassination of al-Muhandis, almost
more so than Solemani, was such a glaring oversight of sovereignty and of all
agreements they had signed on to with the U.S. in terms of the U.S. presence in
Iraq, that it has kind of taken some of the attention away from Iran, to
Friday's march called for by al-Sadr is expected to redirect the focus onto
the U.S. troops. The cleric, who also leads the Sairoon bloc in parliament,
derives much of his political capital through grassroots mobilization.
The Tahrir Square protesters initially rejected that call, saying they want
the escalating conflict between Iran and the U.S. off of Iraqi soil.
Since then, al-Sadr has reached out to them directly, saying the
demonstrations against the government and against the American troops are "two
lights from a single lamp," and it is not yet clear whether that might convince
them to participate in the march.