Iran missile attack in Iraq was 'warning' that could backfire on Tehran

Relations between Baghdad and Tehran are strained amid a complex political battle to form the next Iraqi government

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The volley of ballistic missiles Iran fired at Erbil was a clumsy warning to political opposition parties in Iraq, analysts and Iraqis have told The National.

Iraq is undergoing a fraught government formation process in which parties opposed to Iran-backed groups could take the lead in selecting Cabinet ministers.

The attack wrecked a mansion owned by prominent businessman Baz Karim Barzinji, chief executive of the KAR oil company, and occurred close to the under-construction US consulate, wounding two civilians. Such a large number of missiles could have easily caused mass casualties.

Iran insists the attack’s target was an Israeli secret service site in revenge for a string of Israeli attacks in Syria and Iran, the latter allegedly against a drone base near Kermanshah in western Iran.

Michael Knights, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the attack was, in part, designed to give a message to parties poised to deal a blow to Iran-backed political groups diminished after October’s election results.

In Baghdad, Iraqi parties are at loggerheads over which has the biggest political bloc in parliament, a group that can take the lead in forming a government. Iran’s interests are at risk.

Mr Knights says the use of missiles for intimidation could backfire for the IRGC on all fronts, hardening the resolve of Iraqi political parties not aligned with Iran.

Qasim Al Araji, Iraq’s National Security Advisor and member of the Iran-backed Badr Organisation, visited the ruined house and Mr Barzinji on Sunday, following the announced formation of a joint Iraqi-Kurdish security committee to investigate the attack.

Iraq’s government formation

Moqtada Al Sadr, whose Sadrist bloc won the most seats in Iraq’s parliament after October’s bitterly contested elections, has formed an alliance with leading Sunni parties, notably the leading Kurdish Democratic Party, based in Erbil, where Sunday’s missile attack occurred.

He is also allied to parliament speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi’s Taqaddum and an array of smaller parties, placing their so-called “tripartite alliance” in pole position to form the government.

Taqaddum and KDP MPs have faced a range of threats and assassination attempts amid a fierce rejection of the election results by parties closely allied with Iran, including the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and former PM Nouri Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, which suffered humiliating losses in the low-turnout election.

All have armed militias, or are linked to Iran-backed armed groups. Militiamen loyal to Sadr, himself once backed by Iran, have in the past clashed with Iran-backed militias.

Political violence has long been the modus operandi of Iran-backed parties who stand accused of intimidating and killing hundreds of opposition activists.

On January 26, rockets were fired at the headquarters of Mr Al Halbousi’s political party in Anbar. On January 14, a KDP official escaped an assassination attempt in Baghdad, hours after grenades were thrown at a KDP office. Those attacks followed an attempt to kill PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi in November, in what analysts said resembled a signature Iran-proxy attack.

Multiple missiles hit Iraq's Kurdish capital Erbil

Multiple missiles hit Iraq's Kurdish capital Erbil

After the attack on Sunday, which injured two civilian bystanders, Moqtada Al Sadr issued a strong statement against the violence. He said “Iraqi soil in the north, south, east and west, must not be used as theatre for political, military and security conflicts,” expressing strong solidarity with the Kurds.

“The attack targeted a civilian structure that’s owned by a very successful businessman associated with the Barzani family,” Mr Knights said, an explanation of the attempt to pressure Sadr and the KDP to make concessions to Iran-backed groups.

Mossad claims dismissed

“Regarding to what happened few days ago in Kurdistan, they established a base for the Israelis from which they conspire against us and plan operations,” said Iraj Masjedi, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, who is also a member of the IRGC, on Monday.

“Iran claims that this building was used by Israeli intelligence agents to help orchestrate a drone attack inside Iran on February the 14th, 2022. But there’s no evidence that that is the case,” Mr Knights says.

Kurdish officials stringently deny the allegations.

“This is not the first time they repeated [the allegation of an Israeli presence] it’s happened more than once,” says Safeen Dizayee, head of the department of foreign relations in the Kurdish regional government.

“We refuse it this is as propaganda. And we call on the Iranian government to come and check and give us the proof regarding to what they said before, and what they say about the Mossad,” he said.

Mr Dizayee said the Iraqi government of Mr Al Kadhimi had been supportive of the KRG after the attack.

“The Iraqi government announced the establishment of a committee with the Kurdistan Region,” he says, noting the committee’s investigations into the attack will be led by security forces. Mr Al Kadhimi, along with senior defence officials, has visited the site of the attack, holding meetings with the Kurdish leadership.

On Tuesday, Mr Dizayee summoned Iran’s Consul General in Erbil, Nasrollah Rashnoudi, amid widespread anger in the Kurdish region.

“The Iranians certainly seem to believe that there’s also the additional bonus messaging from Iran and Iran’s proxies in Iraq to the Kurdistan Region,” Mr Knights said.

The attack aims to put pressure on the alliance with Moqtada Al Sadr in Baghdad to form the next government, he said.

Mr Knights also said the missile attacks follow other Iranian strategies including pressuring Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court to rule that Kurdish oil exports are unconstitutional, a direct political and financial attack on the KDP.

“Iranian pressure is having the opposite effect than they had hoped. And it’s also strengthening Moqtada Al Sadr’s determination to make a deal with the Kurds,” he said.

Suggesting Iraq should remove Masjedi’s diplomatic credentials – making him persona non grata – Mr Knights says the time for Iranian ambassadors also being members of the IRGC, as is standard practice, must come to an end.

“Perhaps the Kurdistan Region might want to temporarily close down the Iranian consulate in Erbil and remove their diplomatic staff who are undoubtedly involved in helping to select the targets for last night's attacks. And for other attacks inside Erbil over the last year,” Mr Knights says.

If the Kurds can show this resolve, the extent that Baghdad will be supportive remains an open question.

On Tuesday, Hakim Al Zamili, Deputy Parliament Speaker and senior Sadrist MP, visited the scene of the attack, leading a parliamentary delegation that reportedly included members of Iran-backed parties including Fatah.

“We are not a weak country or subordinate and we respect all neighbouring countries we just want the neighbouring countries to respect us,” he said.

“Parliament will have its say after conducting the field investigation to know the motives behind the attack and what happened. Our opinion will be clear and fair and not biased because we represent the Iraqi people.”

Updated: March 21, 2022, 12:02 PM