international analysis and commentary

Ripple effect: How Israel’s war in Gaza sent shockwaves to Iraq

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Seven months after the October 7th Hamas attack and the subsequent outbreak of a genuine land war in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu perseveres in ignoring international pleas to abandon the plans of an invasion of Rafah. Meanwhile, bombs continue to relentlessly rain down on the besieged Gaza Strip, currently teetering on the brink of famine, which, according to analyses examined by World Food Program, will arrive by May.

While Gaza is isolated and besieged, the effects of the war are not limited to the Strip. Its shockwaves are ebbing and flowing across the region from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen. In Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah have been engaged in combat along the Israeli-Lebanese border since the start of Hamas Operation Al Aqsa Flood, raising questions regarding where Hezbollah will draw the line between acting as an Iranian proxy and responding to Israeli attacks on Lebanese sovereignty, especially in light of the Israeli attacks hitting deeper into Lebanese territory in recent weeks.

After several attacks on international commercial vessels transiting through the Red Sea, which Yemen’s Houthis claim as their attempt to support Palestinians under Israeli attack, the US and the Houthis have now been engaged in low intensity fighting in the Red Sea for three months. The US held indirect secret talks with Iran on potential ways to de-escalate the situation, leveraging Tehran’s influence on the Houthis, the first US-Iran talks since May 2023. Since late January, the US and UK forces have been striking military targets in Yemen, which have not prevented further attacks by the Houthis, prompting them to even threaten further escalation.

 

Read also: The US, Yemen, and the Houthi challenge in the Gulf

 

In Iraq, the activity of pro-Iran militias over the past months has highlighted a series of internal dynamics and divisions that have been present for years, but have been brought to the surface by a multitude of coinciding domestic and international factors. The result? The heightening of tensions between Baghdad and Washington, and Baghdad and Erbil. Two turning points that marked a shift away from the relatively controlled threat of militia drone strikes on US positions in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Iraq and Syria, were the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) deadly ballistic missile attack against what the Islamic Republic claims was a Mossad base in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on the 100th day of Israel’s war on Gaza, and the killing of three US soldiers at the border between Syria and Jordan on January 28, in an Iranian-backed militia attack that prompted the US to launch a major retaliatory campaign in Iraq.

Emergency teams carry out search and rescue operations after missiles target Erbil, January 16, 2024.

 

Baghdad – Washington tensions

Since the October 7th Hamas attack, pro-Iran Iraqi militias have targeted US bases in Iraq and Syria more than 160 times in retaliation for the White House’s support to Israel in its war in Gaza. Most attacks were claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic Resistance in Iraq (Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq) a network of shadow militia groups supported by Iran and affiliated with the IRGC. Washington holds two Iran-supported militia factions, namely Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, accountable for the majority of the attacks.

When the US carried out a first retaliatory strike against militia positions in Iraq in late November, killing eight members of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iraqi government harshly condemned the attack as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and an attempt to destabilize the security situation in the country.

There are still about 2,500 American soldiers stationed in Iraq and 900 in Syria where they are leading the International Coalition Against ISIS through Operation Inherent Resolve, launched by the US in 2014 to counter the ISIS threat in the two countries.

US military personnel in the Mid East – May 2024 est.

 

Legally speaking, the coalition is present in Iraq upon invitation of the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani. Sudani has repeatedly called for the end of the presence in the country since early January, following a US retaliatory strike on militia positions in the Iraqi capital, ironically stationed in Baghdad’s Palestine Street, which killed two commanders of Harakat al-Nujaba. Currently a joint US-Iraq military commission is working on establishing a timeline for the gradual reduction of coalition troops in the country, which will depend on the capacity of local security forces.

Iraq’s criticism of US strikes only grew stronger in the aftermath of the US’ launch of a major retaliation campaign against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as the IRGC’s Quds Forces’ positions in early February, following the killing of three US soldiers at the Jordan-Syria border. The campaign resulted in American strikes on over 80 targets and the death of at least 16 members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella organization formally integrated into the Iraqi army through a parliamentary bill in 2016 – to which we will return. Sudani responded by summoning the chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Since the launch of Washington’s large-scale retaliation campaign, militia drone strikes ceased, with Iranian officials hinting at the fact that Tehran played a role in reigning in the militias. Following Tehran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel on April 14th and the downing of several micro-drones following reported explosions above the skies Isfahan on April 19th, the responsibility for which has yet to be assessed, two strikes on US troops have been launched from Iraqi soil. No group has claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, which took place immediately upon the return of Sudani from his first visit to the US as the Prime Minister of Iraq.

In addition to this, in the night between April 19th and April 20th, several explosions at a military base housing PMF fighters in the Iraqi province of Babil killed one of the group’s members, injuring others, with Washington denying responsibility. Top Iraqi security advisor Qasim al-Araji stressed in an interview on the sidelines of the recent Antalya Diplomacy Forum, that Iraq’s stability depends on the state’s monopoly of the armed forces. Al-Araji also noted that if militias were to choose to integrate into the Iraqi Security Forces, it could be arranged.

As militia attacks on coalition positions in Iraq have targeted both bases in federal Iraq and in the Kurdistan Region, it is important to note that while Baghdad has embraced a clear stance in support of Palestine very early on, Erbil has tried to position itself as neutral. The Kurdish leadership is stuck between the perception that the world’s solidarity with Palestine over Israel’s aggression is hypocritical when examined side by side with its indifference towards Iranian and Turkish attacks against Kurds, and the knowledge that if it expressed views that were too close to those of the US on the conflict, Baghdad might leverage it in order to pressure the KRG, at a time when the power balance between federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region is uncertain.

 

Read also: The dangers of homogenous entities: the Kurdish case

 

While Baghdad has consistently condemned the attacks against US positions in Iraq and Syria and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, there are structural obstacles preventing this, namely the nature of the relationship between Iran-backed militias in Iraq and the Iraqi government.

 

The Islamic resistance and the Iraqi government

The majority of the factions that belong to the self-defined Islamic Resistance in Iraq are also part of the umbrella organization known as Popular Mobilization Forces.

The various paramilitary organizations that make up the PMF first came together in 2014 in response to a fatwa (Islamic law ruling) issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a prominent Shia cleric in Iraq. Sistani called on Iraqis to take up arms and join Iraq’s security forces against ISIS, at a time when the latter had overrun about a third of Iraq, and the Iraqi army, in complete disarray, seemed unable to stop its advance.

The PMF were responsible for a series of important victories, such as the liberation of Mosul, the loss of which had been a defeat etched in the memory of the Iraqi army. As the militias grew stronger, they were brought under the nominal control of the Undersecretariat of National Security under the Prime Minister, as an autonomous body, in the attempt to keep the pro-Iran factions in check. It is important to bear in mind that many of the militias were fiercely pro-Iran and saw the fight against ISIS’ Sunni extremists also as a reaffirmation of the rights of the Shia community that Iran so carefully positions itself as a leader and protector of in the international arena.

Iran has in fact provided political, financial and military support to specific Shia militias within the PMF, raising concerns about external influence within Iraq’s domestic affairs. This dynamic relationship underscores the intricate geopolitical landscape in which the PMF operates, with the current inability of the Iraqi government to prevent Iran-backed militias within the PMF from attacking US troops in Iraq and Syria, raising questions about where the centers of power in the Iraqi system actually lay.

 

The looming question: Who has the last word in Iraq?

The confusion regarding which internal and external actors hold power and legitimacy in Iraq raises concerns for the country’s security, and its capacity to endure a potential arm-wrestling match between Tehran and Washington. On the one hand, some worry about the possibility that a departure of the coalition troops in the near future might leave Iran-backed militias free range in the country, and on the other, many, especially in federal Iraq, are frustrated by the continued presence of US troops in the country.

When it comes to focusing on the international dimension of this regional escalation, one thing is sure: the best way to delegitimize the actions of Iran and its proxies, as pointed out by former special adviser to two High Representatives of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Nathalie Tocci, in an analysis on the Houthi’s actions in the Red Sea, is to support a ceasefire in Gaza and a cessation of Israeli hostilities.

 

Read also: The Israel-Gaza war and international diplomacy: multiple efforts, in random order

 

Domestically, the developments witnessed by Iraq in the aftermath of October 7th highlight the important structural weaknesses of the current system and an increasingly evident powershift in Baghdad-Erbil relations, raising questions regarding whether federalism in the country is actually in danger or not, against the backdrop of the run-up to the upcoming – and contentious – Kurdistan Region parliamentary elections.