Iraq has once again been forced to balance the interests of its two major allies, the US and Iran, after US airstrikes near the Iraq-Syria border killed four members of an Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary group.
Yahya Rasool, Iraq’s defence ministry spokesperson, said the attacks violated Iraqi sovereignty, and repeated a call to avoid using “Iraqi soil to settle accounts.”
The Pentagon said the strikes, launched overnight on Sunday, targeted Iran-backed militias in response to drone attacks on US forces in Iraq. The attacks, the second such direct action launched against armed groups with links to Iran by President Joe Biden’s administration, struck militia bases on either side of the Iraq-Syria border, the Pentagon said.
They came a day after the self-described Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an alliance of paramilitary groups that includes Iran-backed armed groups like Katai’b Hezbollah - technically on the Iraqi army’s payroll - held a military parade to celebrate its seventh birthday.
The ceremony in Diyala, north of Baghdad, was attended by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi despite the high tensions in the past few months between the government and the Shia militias.
On Monday, the group confirmed the death of four of its members in one of its bases near the town of Qaim, west of Anbar, on the Syrian border. The PMF called the attack an assault on “Iraqi sovereignty,” which it said coincided with the “great successes represented in the large parade of the Popular Mobilisation on its anniversary.”
Iran-backed militia groups fought foreign troops periodically from the US-led invasion until 2011. The divided paramilitary groups then made a comeback during the heights of the war against ISIS in 2014. Gathered under the PMF umbrella, the militiamen played an instrumental role on the ground alongside the other Iraqi military units in defeating the extremists.
Since the war against ISIS has wound down, the PMF has launched sporadic attacks on US military installations, bases and convoys as well as rocket targets in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where western diplomats reside. There are still 2,500 American troops deployed in Iraq as part of the international coalition against ISIS.
The PMF’s boldness was seen as an early test for President Biden, who has simultaneously engaged Tehran in talks to rejoin the nuclear deal with international powers.
Biden responded to an attack on the US base in Erbil that killed one civilian contractor with similar strikes on PMF border positions in February. The group has carried out more than 40 attacks across Iraq in 2021.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby defended the use of force on Sunday night, saying that “the United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation – but also to send an unambiguous deterrent message.”
“These facilities are utilised by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq,” Kirby added.
In a statement, Iran’s foreign ministry said: “The US still continues the wrong path in the region. What we see today is… [the Biden administration] following the wrong policies of the previous administration.”
Kadhimi, Iraq’s interim prime minister ahead of delayed elections due to be held in October this year, is often caught between Washington and Tehran. Long pressured by the US to rein in the Shia militias, last month he attempted to exert his power by arresting a senior PMF leader, Qassem Musleh, on accusations of killing a civil society activist named Ihab al-Wazni in Karbala.
However, after a two-week saga that saw the PMF besiege the Green Zone, Musleh was released for “lack of evidence.”