Iran must let Iraqis vote in peace, says US

Washington’s UN envoy and other council diplomats condemn rocket attack in Erbil

FILE PHOTO: Broken glass is seen at the Bright Castle Motors building after reports of mortar shells landing near Erbil airport, in Erbil, Iraq February 15, 2021. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/File Photo

The US on Tuesday called for tougher international action against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and for global support to help Baghdad boost security before general elections set for October.

At ‌UN‌ ‌Security‌ ‌Council‌ talks, ‌US‌ ‌envoy‌ ‌Richard‌ ‌Mills‌ condemned an Iran-backed militia's rocket strike in northern Iraq on Monday and criticised Tehran for killing Iraqis and stalling economic growth for its oil-rich neighbour.

UN diplomats met after a rocket attack on a US airbase in Erbil, the main city in Iraq's northern Kurdish region, late on Monday, which killed a foreign civilian worker and wounded nine others, including Americans.

A lesser-known pro-Iranian group called the Guardians of Blood Brigades militia claimed responsibility for the strike, which is thought to be the first missile hit on a Western target since US President Joe Biden took office on January 20.

The attack was condemned by members of the 15-nation Security Council.

“It is essential to create a conducive environment for elections so that they are credible, peaceful and inclusive,” Mr ‌Mills‌ said at virtual council talks.

“A conducive environment means that we must address Iran-backed militias and Iran's destabilising activities in Iraq as well as the remaining elements [of the Islamic State]. These groups undermine the public’s trust in the government and in the October 2021 elections.”

Mr ‌Mills‌’s statement marked the first US comments on Iraq to the UN under the Biden administration, which is currently weighing how to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran while also curbing what it calls Tehran’s “destabilising” behaviour in the region.

Iraqi politicians last month voted to push back the country’s general elections from June until October 10 to allow more time to organise a vote that could otherwise lack credibility. Iraq’s last nationwide poll in 2018 was marred by allegations of fraud.

Early elections were a key demand of anti-government demonstrators who staged mass protests beginning in October 2019, rallying against corruption, foreign meddling and poor job prospects.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein has written to urge the council to strengthen the role of the UN mission to Iraq (Unami) in monitoring voting. Prominent Shiite leader Moqtada Al Sadr has also voiced support for more UN involvement.

The US, UK and France support expanding Unami‘s mandate to include election monitoring when the mission’s mandate comes up for renewal in May. It is understood that veto-wielding Russia and China will resist such a move.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya said Moscow would “continue to study the possible modalities for the UN's involvement in the process” and was “ready to discuss this issue” further.

UN envoy to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert urged UN members to make a decision so that Iraqi citizens, politicians and journalists could campaign in a “free and safe environment”.

“I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise the importance of obtaining clarity,” Ms Hennis-Plasschaert told the council.

“Any Iraqi who wishes to participate in these elections, as a candidate or campaigner, must be able to do so without fear of intimidation, attack, abduction or assassination.”

Talk about Iraq's elections came as the country prepared to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, the US-led military operation to force Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

The Iraqi leader refused to withdraw and comply with a UN deadline. Early on January 17, 1991, the US, the UK and allies began an aerial bombardment and a military campaign that forced Iraq to retreat.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said a commission to investigate the whereabouts of Kuwaitis and other foreigners who went missing under Iraq’s occupation had recently closed the files of 20 Kuwaitis – the first such move in 16 years.

“I extend my deepest condolences to the families of the victims who waited three decades for this conclusion,” said the Dutch diplomat.

“I call on all partners to seize the momentum of recent progress and to further advance the search for missing persons.”