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Iraq is currently living a state of tension while expecting escalation of the situation between the United States and Iran that might reach to military confrontation between both sides with Iraq being its main arena, before the US President, Donald Trump, formally ends his term on Jan 20.
Expectations of such a conflict escalated after the missile strikes that targeted the US embassy in Baghdad on December 20. The press releases described the blast as the most dangerous of its kind due to the number of missiles and the accuracy while hitting buildings in the embassy. Like all previous times, no party has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Washington was quick to blame Iran’s arms in Iraq, and President Trump said that Iran will be blamed for any killed American.
President Trump’s warning was accompanied by US press leaks about the White House national security team researching options for responding to Iran in preparation for presenting them to the US President, while Washington intensified its military actions, sending B-52s from the US to fly twice over the region’s skies. The US submarine (USS Georgia) equipped with Tomahawk missiles entered the Gulf waters and this was the first time that a submarine of this type has entered the region since 2012.
In this regard, Israeli media reported that an Israeli submarine also headed to the Gulf waters “in anticipation of any Iranian response on the killing of nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last November.
According to some situations prevailed, Washington is concerned about the possibility of Iran or (its arms) carrying out reprisals against US interests in the region, especially in Iraq on the anniversary of the killing of the former Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, January 3rd. This was indicated by the commander of the US Central Command, Kenneth McKinsey, when he warned in statements to “ABC” that there is what he described as “great danger” that Tehran threatens US interests in the Middle East, as the first anniversary of killing Soleimani approaches. He disclosed intelligence information “detected the possibility of an expected attack inside Iraq, by Iran or pro- Iran groups.”
On the other hand, Iran denied its connection with the missiles that targeted the embassy while the commander of the Quds Force, Ismail Qaani, visited Baghdad twice within two weeks and media quoted an “Iraqi source” as saying: an Iranian official informed the Iraqi government of his country’s condemnation of the US embassy blast, adding that Washington bears full responsibility for the consequences of any unwise act it takes at the current stage.” He also described Washington’s accusations against Tehran as redundant, baseless and fabricated and he warned President Trump of “going through critical ventures in the last days of his term at the White House.”
Despite the severity of the statements and concerns if about the current tension is dragged into a military conflict, some reasons on the other hand, may mitigate the expected extent to which matters may slide the region into before Trump’s departure.
On the US side, logical calculations do not seem much useful in light of the bombshells that marked President Trump’s reign and because he will continue to enjoy all his constitutional powers until the middle of the day of the twentieth of January. Actually, there are no limits for expectations about what can happen before that time. Much speculation revolves around his attempt to spread chaos in the region through a war even if it is limited, in order to put additional obstacles before the president-elect, Joe Biden, especially in the latter’s quest to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran. This will be the last service that Trump can provide as “President sided with Israel”.
Indeed, the bombing operations that targeted the US embassy in Baghdad provided an opportunity for such an option, even if Iran declares that it is not responsible for it. At the end of the day, the armed factions loyal to Iran are accused of bombing and there is no side but Iran who possesses this military capabilities or comfortable presence in missile launch areas inside Baghdad or in its suburbs.
The statements of the US President have linked any military operations that may be resulted in the killing of a US citizen to Iran, and this has not happened so far and may never happen. Then, there will be no clear excuse to launch military operations against Iran, a reality that may continue until the end of Trump’s term. Plus, Tehran will likely prevent its loyal factions in Iraq from carrying out any retaliatory operations on the anniversary of the killing of Soleimani as Washington expects, and therefore, when this occasion passes quietly, Washington may not find a direct reason to carry out major military strikes.
If Trump has personal and political motives to complicate the region’s files through a blitzkrieg that may develop into a large-scale conflict, Iran is definitely not willing to do so, what’s more, it will be keen with all means to deprive Trump of the pretext that he may be waiting for. This explains Qaani’s repeated visits to Baghdad and what was leaked about his meeting with factions and his call for calm at this stage.
Despite such Iranian tactic that is understood and expected, especially in the context of Iranian pragmatism, it may not necessarily be ideally feasible, due to the complicated nature of the situation of the armed factions in Iraq, specifically (the pro-Iran factions) known for their loyalty to Tehran.
These factions operate under the cover of the (Popular Mobilization), a military formation established in 2014 to confront ISIS (Daesh). it is consisted of Shiite militias and volunteers and was granted its legal status in 2016 as an independent military body under the command of the prime minister, who assumes the post of commander in chief of the armed forces.
Despite the issuance of many orders to organize the work of these factions and to control their movement within the framework of the state and within a military context, most of them ignored these orders and continued to operate within the context of their subordination to their party and religious and militia leaders, who repeatedly declared their loyalty to Iran.
Both Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis tightly controlled these factions and the latter was organizing their relationship with the Iraqi state institutions and preventing contact or friction between these factions and the Iraqi army or inside the factions. As for Soleimani, he was the clever of using these factions to achieve local and regional tactical gains within what is known as (the axis of resistance), and this matter often included organizing rules of engagement with the US forces in Iraq, in a way that serves Iranian foreign policy. These roles, which Soleimani and Al-Mohandes perfectly played, suffered a major setback when the two men were killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in early 2020 and since then things have not been the same.
Neither Ismail Qaani, who succeeded Soleimani, nor Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (Abu Fadak), the commander of the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq, who assumed the position of al-Mohandes is unable to control the Popular Mobilization the same it was. Factions belonging to the reference of Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, known as the Atabat factions, separated from him, and established a special leadership for them.
The most important point in the context of what is happening is that some factions seem to be acting on their own outside the mechanisms or control system that they knew before, and this conclusion was reinforced when each of the factions established its own special economic resources and hired elements that support it within the Iraqi army and police and political and administrative institutions.
It will not be easy to describe the details of what is happening in the closed world of militias crowded with titles, interests and references, but the state of (rebellion) within this complex network appeared in mid-December, when the Popular Mobilization Security Service arrested leaders (Saraya al-Khorasani) and closed their headquarters without explaining the reasons. This development was not transient as this militia is active and has roles in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the timing of the arrests was after a visit by Qaani to Baghdad, which suggested an involvement of (Saraya al-Khorasani) in the firing of missiles at the US embassy, without Tehran’s approval. In the aftermath of Qaani’s second visit after less than two weeks, Iraqi forces arrested a leader from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, on the twenty-fourth of this month. He was accused of leading the missile launched against the US embassy. The accident caused severe tension in Baghdad where the members of this faction deployed with their weapons in the streets of the capital before the tension was temporarily ended.
In all cases, Iran can no longer tolerate people or factions that have begun to act according to their ideological or perhaps (local) agendas, and no surprise if we know that the Quds Force commander agreed with the Iraqi government (which is necessary) to stop the state of tension by arresting the missiles’ launchers to prevent any possible military escalation from Washington’s side. Dealing with the (Asaib) militia was more limited and cautious due to its size, roles, and its deep relationship with Tehran.
Iran may succeed, in cooperation with the Iraqi government and its obedient (pro-Iran factions), in stopping the “uncontrolled” bombing operations against US interests during the remainder of Trump’s term, but still this can’t be deemed certain is not certain because the armed factions have turned into major power centers in Iraq, with loyalists and advanced weapons, and they are ideologically trained by Iran to be hostile to the United States and its allies in the region.
Thus, it may be difficult and complicated to control everyone in light of the current sensitive situation. Many of the armed groups affiliated with these (pro-Iran factions) have the ability to launch new missile attacks on US interests whether due to ideological, political, or personal motives, or just because of (a mistake) in calculations. In all cases, Iran will be blamed even if it didn’t approve this, because, from the very beginning, it’s Iran who created these powers and prepared them for these roles.
The options, then, are open, and its main danger lie in the fact that two sides are not under control, neither Trump, his moods and his bombshells, nor Iran that does not want to give Trump his war, but only facing the consequences of violent armed forces that are of their own creation and they became as out of control. Moreover , some of these factions may have an interest in exploding the situation. There is nothing better than turmoil and chaos for warlords to enjoy feeling powerful.