On New Year's Eve, followers of Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah, trying to pass off as protesters, breached the compound wall of the US embassy in Baghdad and set it on fire. There is no doubt that the attack had the Iranian regime's fingerprints all over it, especially after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement on the militias' behalf. And as the militiamen set ablaze a sentry box and waved their flags, all the while chanting "death to America", it became clear how urgently the US needs a bold strategy to deal with Iran's ever-growing influence in Iraq.
Aside from it being reminiscent of the time when revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran 40 years ago, those who carried our Tuesday's attack were supporters of Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian paramilitary group that lost 25 of its fighters during last week's US air strikes in Iraq and Syria. These strikes were in turn a response to attacks Kataib Hezbollah launched on a US military base in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, killing one American contractor and two Iraqi policemen.
This escalation of tension is yet another confirmation of the proxy war being waged on Iraqi soil between Tehran and Washington, with politicians from both countries having upped the ante in recent times. "To the Iranian government: be careful what you wish for," US senator Lindsey Graham, a supporter of President Donald Trump, wrote on Twitter. "A country that depends on the ability to refine oil for its existence needs to be cautious."
Despite the rhetoric – as well as America’s military and economic superiority over Iran – Washington must know that it cannot win a proxy war with Tehran over the long term by engaging in a spiral of violence, even if it might help Mr Trump’s re-election chances in November.
For one, the US has little support from the Iraqi government, which has all but submitted itself to Iran, as is evident from the striking reluctance of security forces in stopping the assault on the embassy compound. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the caretaker prime minister, might be a lame duck but his silence for hours before issuing a tepid statement asking for “a retreat from foreign missions” was instructive of how little autonomy he has.
Tehran, battered economically by international sanctions for wanting to acquire nuclear weapons and exert control regionally, can barely afford an all-out conflict. Its meddling can be read as a way of distracting its own disillusioned public from the burning issues like fuel prices in Iran.
The US must be cognisant that a proxy war will further antagonise ordinary Iraqis who since October 1 have been protesting against their corrupt, dysfunctional and partisan government. American forces stationed in the country must find a way to win the hearts and minds of the citizens whose anger is directed as much at Kataib Hezbollah as it is towards the political class. The people are tired of sectarianism, which has infected a decaying political system. Iraq's Shia-majority south has risen up against Tehran’s meddling in the country’s affairs, in addition to the rejection of the corruption rampant in Iraq.
The US should align itself with political forces fighting the powerful militias who should be answering to Baghdad – and not to Tehran – by laying out a clear strategy on how to tackle the challenges they face. They should also reach out to civic activists such as well-known Iraqi satirist Ahmed Al Basheer, who told The National: "The protesters have nothing to do with what is happening at the embassy. On the contrary, protesters initially started their protests against Iranian interference."
The Iraqi government needs to step up and be more accountable to its people, as well as to diplomatic missions stationed in its country. But the US can, and should, turn recent developments to its advantage and use whatever leverage it still has over the governing class to move it and the Iraqi people out of Tehran’s orbit.