Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 1 April 2020

Britain working to ease Iraq tensions after rocket attacks on US-led coalition

Washington is demanding Iraqi action against the Iran-backed militia blamed for deadly strikes on Taji military base

US soldiers stationed at the Taji base in Iraq as part of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS. AFP
US soldiers stationed at the Taji base in Iraq as part of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS. AFP

Britain is in talks with Iraqi Shiite political forces to ease tension following recent attacks on bases housing the international coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and retaliatory US strikes on Iran-backed Iraqi militias, sources from both sides told The National.

Iraq, where the United States and Iran have vied for influence since the 2003 US-led invasion, has become a flashpoint in recent months amid regional strikes.

Tehran-backed militias in Iraq stepped up their sporadic rocket fire at bases housing American and other foreign troops after the US killed Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in a drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport on January 3.

Suleimani and Al Muhandis were, respectively, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and deputy head of the umbrella leadership of Iraqi armed factions known collectively as the Hashed Al Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Iran retaliated a week later with missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing American troops, without causing casualties. But the first serious response from the Iraqi militias came only on March 11, when one of the factions fired rockets at the international wing of the Taji military base housing US and UK advisers. Two American and one British soldier were killed and 12 others were wounded.

The US retaliated two days later with air strikes on five military and civilian sites in central and southern Iraq as Washington pointed the finger at Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful PMF units and an entity sanctioned by America.

The Joint Operations Command-Iraq, which includes coalition officials, said the strikes hit military headquarters in Jurf Al Sakhr, Al Musayyib, Alexandria and Najaf, with the Iraqi Army Division 19 Commandos, the 46th Brigade of the PMF and the Third Babylon Emergency Police Regiment the targets.

Iraqi military and PMF sources said the 46th Brigade includes fighters from Kataib Hezbollah.

Two Iraqi soldiers, a policeman and a civilian were killed and seven people wounded in the strikes, which the US said were intended to hit weapon storage sites.

It is not clear what losses were suffered by Kataib Hezbollah, considered one of the most secretive armed factions, but military sources said the most serious strike was on a weapons factory in Jurf Al Sakhr, a predominantly Sunni town held by Kataib Hezbollah since it was liberated from ISIS in the summer of 2014. The militia has been preventing people from the area from returning to their homes.

An image provided by the US Department of Defence shows target sites to be hit in air strikes in Iraq on March 13, 2020. US Department of Defence via AP
An image provided by the US Department of Defence shows target sites to be hit in air strikes in Iraq on March 13, 2020. US Department of Defence via AP

Security sources and commanders of some Iraqi armed factions told The National that Kataib Hezbollah leaders abandoned their headquarters after the US strikes in anticipation of more attacks.

At about noon the next day, the Taji base was hit by another barrage of rockets, injuring three American troops and several members of Iraq’s military.

The US has vowed to respond with more strikes against Kataib Hezbollah. American officials said the Iraqi government was doing little to prevent attacks on its forces.

A US army trainer watches as an Iraqi recruit prepares to fire at the Taji military base in Iraq. Getty
A US army trainer watches as an Iraqi recruit prepares to fire at the Taji military base in Iraq. Getty

The escalation prompted Britain, a key member of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq, to make efforts to calm the situation.

“Things are likely to get worse soon, especially due to weak Iraqi government not being able to contain Iran and America,” a diplomat at the British embassy in Baghdad told The National.

“The UK is pushing hard for diplomatic options. It should be for the Iraqi military to respond vis-a-vis Kataib Hezbollah. The diplomatic option is to give time and ask for action by a certain date,” the senior official said.

“The question is whether the US will listen. Action without Iraqi government support will make things worse, as it lacks popular legitimacy, turns moderate Iraqis against the US and helps achieve Iran’s aim of getting US forces out of Iraq.”

London has taken a more cautious line than the US over demands for the Iraqi government to disband the militias that operate in tandem with the security forces. Officials argue for engagement with the political groupings in the Iraqi parliament to build support for disbandment of the armed groups to roll back Iranian influence on its neighbour. This does not mean direct contact with the militias or their leaderships, one official said.

A Shiite faction commander close to Kataib Hezbollah told The National negotiations were being held through Iraqi mediators to calm matters between the militia and the Americans.

“What is currently offered is the scheduling of the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. This tactic will provide the Americans with the time they need beyond the date of the American [presidential] elections, while satisfying the leaders of the Shiite factions including Kataib Hezbollah, who are demanding the removal of American forces from Iraq,” the commander said.

“We know that the consequences of any direct armed confrontation between the American forces and the Shiite armed factions now will be harmful and useless. The timing is not right, and stubbornness of all sides will lead to great losses. Everyone will lose, including the Americans.”

Shiite commanders and observers said the success of these efforts would depend on the flexibility shown by the US and the militias, particularly Kataib Hezbollah.

The difficulty is persuading Kataib Hezbollah’s leaders that they should stop attacking US forces because Iraq is facing “critical conditions and cannot bear more problems”, said the leader of another Iranian-backed armed faction, referring to a months-long political crisis and the Covid-19 outbreak.

“They do not listen to anyone, especially after the assassination of Suleimani and Al Muhandis, and they refuse to co-ordinate with others or merge with them,” the commander said.

“They are currently seeking to send a message to everyone that they are the ones who determine the date of peace or war with the Americans inside Iraq.

“What we are facing now is part of the chaos that the assassination of Suleimani and Al Muhandis left behind and the desire of some leaders to take the lead.”

The British diplomat said the next steps would depend largely on what the Iraqi government does in response to the attacks on American forces.

“The US made it clear that they expect an Iraqi military response, otherwise they will likely take further action,” the diplomat said.

“Even if some sections of the Iraqi military want to respond against Kataib Hezbollah, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to do so by politicians or other factions. That would make US intervention more likely, as they would say Iraq is not capable of protecting the coalition so they have to do something.”

Updated: March 24, 2020 12:15 PM

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