Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

Strikes on pro-Iran militia expose US to Iraqi backlash

Attacks were military retaliation but revived Washington's image as cause of Iraq's ills

The US attack on an Iraqi militia this week may have been a political gift to Iran’s clients in Baghdad, deflecting attention from the popular uprising against the political system they control.

Iran’s militia allies are a major factor in the state of lawlessness and massive corruption that sparked the uprising.

Together with parts of the security apparatus and the military, militiamen killed hundreds of Shiite demonstrators since the protest movement demanding the removal of the entire political class broke out on October 1.

They are also blamed for the assassination and disappearances of scores of Shiite activists, the latest of whom was Ali Al Khafaji, who was gunned down in his impoverished home town of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on Monday night.

But no Shiite political or religious figure, even those supportive of the uprising, endorsed the US strikes, having mostly played down the destabilisation from militia attacks on American forces that sparked Washington’s retaliation.

While Iran’s allies jumped on the attack to glorify the militia and revive public displays of anti-US sentiment, other Iraqi players were more circumspect.

Those wary of Iran’s role refrained from blanket support for the militias, especially after the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement on the militias’ behalf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the country’s highest Shiite authority, condemned what he termed “sinful aggression” by the US but said only that the state should take steps to prevent its repetition.

Slain Iraqi activist Ali Al Khafaji at an Iraqi demonstration in October 2019, pointing to a sign that reads "those who are afraid do not bring about freedom" . From Facebook
Slain Iraqi activist Ali Al Khafaji at an Iraqi demonstration in October 2019, pointing to a sign that reads "those who are afraid do not bring about freedom" . From Facebook

The US strikes in Iraq and in Syria on positions belonging to Kataib Hezbollah reportedly killed 25 of its members on Sunday.

The raids were in retaliation for a rocket attack by the group on a military base in Kirkuk that killed an American contractor last week.

The rocket was the latest in on-and-off attacks on US targets in Iraq since Washington’s sanctions on Tehran intensified in mid-2019.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the most ideologically loyal to Iran in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a loose grouping of pro-Iranian Iraqi paramilitary forces.

Also known as the Hashed Al Shaabi, the PMF is officially integrated into the Iraqi state.

But many of its parts act without referring to the government and, according to the US and many Iraqis, at the behest of Iran.

Adel Abdul Mahdi, the departing prime minister, criticised the US strikes, having been told by Washington about them. Mr Abdul Mahdi did not indicate that he had warned the militia of any impending attack.

Supporters of the PMF militias, who had all but disappeared from the streets as the uprising increasingly turned against Iran’s tutelage, were back after the US strikes.

Qais Al Khazali and Hadi Al Amiri, who command major factions in the PMF, were among a crowd that tried to set fire to the US embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday. In the southern city of Basra, US flags were burnt during a pro-militia march.

Independent Shiite cleric Sheikh Ali Al Uboudi, a fierce critic of the corruption and crime linked to militias in the PMF, said the groups must not be used as a tool in the struggle between Iran and the US.

Mr Al Uboudi was referring to a statement by Revolutionary Guard that said the PMF “reserve the right to retaliate and respond to the recent big crime of the Americans”.

He said Iraq had “lost a large number of our young, dear brothers. They were mowed down by unjust American aggression”.

But “those who deal unilaterally with the complicated issue of the US presence in Iraq” should be held accountable for jeopardising the national interest, he said.

“We do not accept that the Americans use Iraq for aggression. We also refuse attempts to bring Iraq into a conflict between two countries."

Mr Al Uboudi is among a class of Shiite religious and civilian figures sidelined since Mr Al Sistani backed a political alliance that has won or determined almost every Iraqi election since the first post-Saddam Hussein polls in January 2005.

Although they are anti-US, he and other independent figures had warned that Iran was losing Iraq’s Shiites by backing the political class. They quickly sought to put the issue of the US strike behind.

Mr Al Uboudi published on Facebook a photo of Al Khafaji with his two children.

“What a gift to his children on the eve of the new year,” he said.

The fire set on the grounds of the US embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday was intended to show how close the militia can come to US interests.

It also sought to mask the failures of Iran’s allies in Iraq.

Updated: January 1, 2020 12:41 AM

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