US vows to face threats by Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq
The US is drafting sanctions against Iranian-backed militias targeting US forces in Iraq
The US called on Iraqi officials to take action against the perpetrators of an attack on US forces in Baghdad on Sunday.
The State Department said on Tuesday that it was outraged by the attack, which killed three Iraqi children and two women from the same family after a rocket aimed at Baghdad Airport – where US troops are stationed – hit their home.
The US has vowed to respond to threats against its interests in Iraq and is drafting sanctions targeting Iran-backed militias if attacks against US targets in the country continue.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Iraqi leadership that the US would close down its embassy in Baghdad and demanded decisive action against the armed groups responsible for violence.
“The United States will not tolerate threats to our men and women serving abroad and we will not hesitate to take any action we deem necessary to keep our personnel safe,” the State Department said in a statement emailed to The National on Monday.
It refused to comment on Mr Pompeo’s calls to the Iraqis, but said: “We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remain the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq.”
Martin Huth, the EU ambassador to Iraq, condemned the latest attacks, saying "criminal terrorist attacks need to stop, perpetrators held accountable," in a tweet on Tuesday.
Rocket and bomb attacks have become an almost daily routine against the US embassy – a sprawling compound in the heavily fortified Green Zone – as well as military bases hosting US troops and logistics convoys destined for the US-led International Coalition forces.
At least nine hitherto unknown Shiite groups, believed to be linked to major Shiite militias, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Lawmaker Dhafir Al Ani, who sits on the parliament’s foreign relations committee, said “punishing measures” were likely to follow any US embassy closure.
“Washington has prepared a list of 40 names of militia leaders who will be considered targets and will face sanctions,” Mr Al Ani told The National.
The sanctions will also be imposed on the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-sponsored umbrella group for paramilitary groups, including some Iran-backed militias, targeting their arms and financing, Mr Al Ani said, adding that the US was likely treat the Iraqi government as it has the Iranian government.
He said that 12 European embassies had informed Baghdad that they will take the same step.
“The government has tried to assure the American side, but facts on the ground are different and trust is almost nonexistent,” he said.
Events started to unfold late last year, when the US accused Iran of masterminding missile attacks against US targets through Iraqi proxies.
Tensions soared in late December when the US accused the Kataib Hezbollah militia of attacking a military base north of Baghdad, killing one US contractor and wounding several US services members and Iraqi personnel.
A day later, the US forces conducted air strikes against five Kataib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 fighters and wounding dozens. During the funeral procession for the dead, angry mourners, including some in military fatigues, broke into Baghdad’s Green Zone and torched a reception building at the US embassy.
On January 3, the US responded with a drone attack that killed Iran’s Gen Qassim Soleimani after he landed at Baghdad airport, along with Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and several others.
A few days later, Iraq’s Shiite political parties pushed for a decision inside parliament to expel US troops from Iraq without endorsement from Sunnis and Kurds.
Iran retaliated by firing nearly two dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases hosting American troops. Since then, Iran and its allies have called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
“The presence of the American troops on Iraqi soil is illegal and illegitimate,” the spokesman of Kataib Hezbollah, Mohammed Mohie, told The National. “It challenges the parliament decision and threatens to create crises."
He said the US warning psychological was warfare aimed at increasing pressure on the government to take action against the PMF.
“The US doesn’t want stumbling blocks in Iraq so that it can carry on with its schemes,” he said. “These stumbling blocks are the resistance factions.”
He suggested withdrawing all US troops and reconsidering the embassy size in order to redraw the relations between the two countries to reflect mutual interests.
Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq is separate from the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
Dr Munqith Dagher, founder of the Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies research group in Iraq and MENA director and board member of Gallup International, believed the US was serious with its warnings.
“The current Iraqi government and the previous one received many warnings before and at the same time Iraqis have given promises and nothing has happened,” Mr Dagher said.
He said he believed that there were two perspectives inside Iran – “Iran the state and Iran the revolution”.
The first, he said, does not want things to reach this limit in Iraq and wants Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi to play a role in mitigating tension with the US, while the latter believed that there was an opportunity to provoke US President Donald Trump to lead him to defeat in the presidential vote in November.
Updated: September 29, 2020 10:20 PM