Iran is using Iraq as a front in its test of US resolve

Iran is using Iraq as a front in its test of US resolve
© HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP/Getty Images

For three days in a row this week, rockets have been fired at areas where U.S. forces or U.S. interests are located in Iraq. On Monday, rockets targeted Camp Taji, where the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is training Iraqi security forces. On Tuesday, more rockets were fired at a compound in Mosul where U.S. troops are based. Then, another attack on Wednesday struck an oil facility near where ExxonMobil has employees. 

And Thursday's shooting down of a U.S. drone by Iran's Revolutionary Guard capped a month of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces,” national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonWashington indecision compounded the Kurds' dilemma US Ambassador Sondland says Trump directed officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine Sondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy MORE said in early May. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' Pompeo to meet Netanyahu as US alliances questioned Washington indecision compounded the Kurds' dilemma MORE linked a rocket attack near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on May 19 to Iran. There are other incidents as well, including mortar attacks near an air base and harassment of U.S. troop movements.

The picture emerging appears to be that Iraq increasingly is being used by Iran, or pro-Iranian forces, to test U.S. resolve and threaten U.S. forces. This points to a campaign of intimidation against the United States in Iraq as Iran seeks to pressure Washington and tries to call the Trump administration’s bluff on its warning that any attacks would be met with “unrelenting force.”

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U.S. forces have been involved in Iraq for decades, particularly after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Troops left Iraq in 2011, hoping to end a conflict that had cost thousands of lives and more than $2 trillion. America returned in 2014 to support Iraq’s war against the Islamic State. The concept this time around was different: Washington was not coming to do national building or spread democracy, but to advise and assist, and train and equip the Iraqis.

The problem in Iraq is that, while the war against ISIS was being fought, Iran increased its influence through local political allies, such as the Hashd al-Shaabi militias. These volunteer forces became part of the government’s official forces in 2018. The United States has expressed support for a “strong, free and sovereign Iraq” under Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Washington wants to continue to help Iraq fight ISIS, but the U.S. has made it clear, in statements on May 7 and June 14, that Iran is responsible for threats and attacks in the region.

Iraq’s leading politicians — including President Barham Salih, the prime minister and the leader of the Badr Organization, a pro-Iranian faction — have all said they do not want Iraq to be part of a conflict between the U.S. and Iran. In a June 14 phone call with the prime minister, Pompeo reportedly thanked him for his “commitment to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq.” It seems clear, in retrospect, that the call, just days before a series of rocket attacks, illustrates the challenge Iran poses in Iraq. Iran is using its influence in Iraq as leverage. It sees Iraq as its near abroad, a buffer between Iran and U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and even Israel.

Iraqis say they don’t want to be treated like this. Protesters targeted pro-Iranian militias in Basra in July 2018, but the militias have cracked down on dissent in recent months.

The U.S. must rely on Iraqi security forces to stop the rocket attacks and to investigate them. Even though President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE said the U.S. could “watch” Iran from Iraq, the reality is that Iran wields power. Pro-Iranian politicians have called on the U.S. to leave Iraq, and rocket attacks are an easy way to harass the U.S. Iran has precision missiles it has used to strike at dissidents in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region and in Syria. The rockets fired so far are likely a warning. Tehran is counting on Iraqi politicians to support its policies — and on U.S. reticence to engage in another conflict in Iraq so soon after the war against the Islamic State.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever” (Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.