Iraq is on edge, politicians accuse Israel, US of airstrikes - Analysis

In Iraq, these groups are not just armed, but also have an umbrella political party, called Fatah Coalition, to which they are linked.

By
August 28, 2019 02:02
3 minute read.
Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

Allegations that Israel carried out airstrikes in Iraq over the last month have led to increased tensions between the US and some Iraqi political parties, as well as between the parties themselves. It comes in the context of questions about Iraq’s future role in the region and whether the state will emerge from the ISIS war stronger and more unified, or more divided.


Iraqi media has been highlighting the recent tensions with stories about members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries meeting with political leaders. The PMF was formed in 2014 as Shi’ite militias but became an official force in 2018. It was used to fight ISIS, but has increased its powers after ISIS was mostly defeated in 2017. Leaders of the militias, such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Kata’ib Hezbollah, are closely linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and its commander, Qasem Soleimani. This means these groups find themselves at the center of current Israel-Iran tensions and also US-Iran tensions.
In Iraq, these groups are not just armed, but also have an umbrella political party, called Fatah Coalition, to which they are linked. When PMF bases began to blow up in mid-July, they pointed fingers at the US and Israel. A more serious explosion on August 20 near Balad brought things to a head. They want an investigation and Muhandis blamed the US for allowing the airstrikes. The US was adamant that it was not behind them. On August 26, the Pentagon said the US did not carry out an attack on August 25 that targeted a convoy near Al-Qa’im, nor did the US attack ammunition storage facilities. The US says that statements accusing Washington are misleading and inflammatory. The States also says its forces are in Iraq to support the war on ISIS and at the invitation of the Iraqi government.


Iraq’s foreign ministry is livid, saying the attacks are a violation of sovereignty. Other groups, including MPs, members of the Fatah Coalition and of the PMF, have called for an investigation and increased rhetoric against Israel and the US.


Outside of the halls of government, there is also increasing tension at PMF bases where units keep reporting drone sightings. In Anbar Province, in the western desert near the Syrian border and in Nineveh Province near Mosul, PMF units have reported drones and even claimed to have fired on them. Iraq’s Al-Sumaria TV has claimed the US halted operations in Anbar Province after a unit of the PMF was attacked near Al-Qa’im. The US said it didn’t attack the unit but is concerned it will be blamed. There is hesitation among some Iraqis to blame Israel, preferring instead to say that the Al-Qa’im attack was an error by the coalition or something else, even an ISIS cell.


Iraqi security forces are in the middle of a major anti-ISIS campaign, so the tensions about the airstrikes come at the worst time. The government is trying to fight ISIS cells across Iraq and there are daily clashes. At the same time, the PMF is now spooked by the allegations of drone strikes. 


This means that Iraq does not intersect with several major questions about what might come next. Will there be more airstrikes or mysterious explosions at PMF bases? Will the US be able to convince Iraqi parties and militias that it is not responsible in some way? Will the parliament get answers about the strikes, or will the government continue its tight-lipped stance? 


Talk of “war” in Iraq related to Israel is mostly rhetoric, but Iraq is an important country and its security and stability is important for the region. It is at the heart of competing agendas, one of those agendas being Iran’s interest in using allies in Iraq to stockpile weapons to send weapons to Syria and Lebanon. As such, the Iraq that is now just recovering from the ISIS war finds itself at the crossroads of another new flashpoint.


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