The prospect of a broader conflict between Iran and the United States was reinforced Wednesday after the latter attacked two bases in Iraq that house American troops with a barrage of missiles hours after the remains of an Iranian commander killed by a US drone strike were returned to his hometown for burial.
Caught in the middle, Iraq has long been at risk of falling into the grip of the shadowy war between Iran and the United States and its allies that is raging across the Middle East.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Iraqi ruling elite, which is utterly discredited and already wracked by popular protests and crippled by political paralysis, is even less capable of handling the growing proxy confrontation between Tehran and Washington.
Since the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal with the major world powers, the question has been when the tension between the two rivals will flare up and turn Iraq into a proxy battleground between Iran and the United States.
That moment came last week when Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s point man in Iraq, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a US airstrike on their convoy in Baghdad amid a standoff with Iran.
US president Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Al-Quds Force, and al-Muhandis, the head of the Iran-backed Kata’eb Hezbollah militia, on Friday at Baghdad International Airport.
Hours before the dramatic attack that raised the possibility of a broader conflict in the Middle East, US defence secretary Mark T. Esper said that the US military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were indications that Iran-backed groups were planning more attacks against Americans.
That strong warning came less than a week after an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk that was blamed on Kata’eb Hezbollah and marked the latest round of escalation between Washington and Iran’s allies in Iraq.
On 27 December, a salvo of 30 rockets landed at an Iraqi airbase near the northern city of Kirkuk where American soldiers are based for a mission of advice and assistance of Iraqi security forces in their fight against Islamic State (IS) group remnants.
The rocket assault was one of many recent attacks on US bases across Iraq, including a slew of rocket attacks on a military base at Baghdad International Airport that hosts US soldiers.
Two days later, the United States retaliated against Kata’eb Hezbollah with airstrikes on their bases on the Iraqi-Syrian border that left 24 militiamen dead and dozens wounded.
Two days after the bombings, on New Year’s Eve al-Muhandis walked into the heavily protected Green Zone in central Baghdad unopposed with hundreds of supporters of Iran’s proxy militias and set fire to the US embassy buildings.
The Iraqi government did nothing to stop the anti-US protesters, and the riot soon became another escalation in the lingering crisis between America, Iran, and Iraq.
Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the attack on the embassy, and in a series of tweets and statements he said that Tehran would be held fully responsible for attacks against US interests.
Retribution came with the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis less than 48 hours later, raising fears worldwide that the dramatic escalation could make the already tense and fragile region even more dangerous.
While Iran’s supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for “crushing retaliation,” Iran’s highest security body pledged to avenge Soleimani’s killing in the “right place and at the right time” and at a “very high price.”
For millions of Iraqis, their worst fears of escalating tensions have thus come true, with Iran vowing to seek revenge on the United States for killing one of the country's most powerful military and political figures and putting Iraq at the centre of a proxy confrontation between the US and Iran.
It became clear that the immediate challenge for Iraq in the aftermath of the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis was the presence of thousands of US soldiers in Iraq under agreements with the Baghdad government.
Iran and its proxies in Iraq have been pushing through a chain of events for a US troop withdrawal from Iraq, and the killing of Soleimani accelerated Tehran’s goal of driving the United States military out of Iraq.
The Iraqi parliament, which is dominated by a Shia majority, called on Sunday for the government to take the necessary measures for US forces to leave Iraq amid a boycott by some Shia MPs and most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers.
Although it is not clear for now how outgoing prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who leads a caretaker cabinet, will implement the controversial resolution, Washington seems to be dismissing the move as irrelevant.
“We are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign. And we’ll continue to do all the things we need to do to keep America safe,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the Fox TV channel in the US.
The Pentagon has said that one reason behind the killing of Soleimani was that he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
An estimated 7,000 US troops are stationed in Iraq as part of efforts to combat the remnants of IS and support Iraqi security forces. In addition, thousands of military contractors and security personnel are believed to be participating in the US operations in the country.
Iraq and the United States are bound by a 2008 agreement aimed at keeping thousands of US military contractors in Iraq and ensuring cooperation in several fields, including helping Iraq in threat deterrence and law enforcement.
The Pentagon said on Friday that it would deploy an additional 3,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to the Middle East to bolster security in the region. The forces will join a battalion of about 750 soldiers from the Division that arrived in Kuwait on 2 January.
The new dispatch will join tens of thousands of US troops at bases and aboard ships across the Middle East, as well as add to arrangements with various countries to move soldiers and military equipment through airstrips and ports.
On Saturday, a military spokesman for Abdul-Mahdi said the Iraqi leader had decreed that the US troops in Iraq would be restricted to their camps and would need authorisations from the prime minister’s office for their operations in Iraq.
If implemented, this will make Abdul-Mahdi virtually the commander-in-chief of the US troops in Iraq, a move which is highly unlikely to be acceptable to Washington and raises serious questions about the future of the American military presence in Iraq.
But while that remains unclear, the prospect for escalation between Iran and the US troops in Iraq remains high, and all eyes are now on what may happen next.
Iran has vowed to take revenge on the US for killing Soleimani, though Iranian officials have differed on how their country will respond and whether Tehran’s response will be by its military forces or through its proxies in the region.
There are different scenarios for the unfolding conflict that could start with a small attack by Iran on a US-related target or the hitting of oil installations or tankers in the Gulf causing collateral damage or oil spills.
In Iran’s retaliatory basket of targets there are also possible terrorist attacks abroad and on US soil, attempts to assassinate US officials, cyber-attacks, and taking more provocative steps on its nuclear programme.
But in another and more likely scenario, Iran’s leaders may decide to stand up to the US in Iraq, where American troops and interests are vulnerable as they are increasingly operating in a hostile environment.
Shia militias in Iraq with close ties to Iran have already made threats that they will hit US military forces and other American assets in Iraq in revenge for Soleimani’s death and to push the troops to leave.
While it remains to be seen if Iran will suffice with firing ballistic missiles from inside its borders at two of the main military bases In Iraq as enough retaliatory action, the attack was a significant escalation of force that threatened to ignite a widening conflict.
For the time being, the probability is higher than at any time in the past for a war between Iran and the United States, no matter whether it will consist of low-grade attacks or a full-scale conflict.
Fears are mounting that both Iran and the United States are in a dangerous escalatory cycle that could likely lead them into a shooting war. Unfortunately, there are many reasons to believe that Iraq will also be sucked into such a conflict between Washington and Tehran.
Over more than a decade, the Islamic Republic has cemented its influence in Iraq largely because the United States has failed to confront its attempts to build a political, economic, security and cultural power base after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Iran has exploited all the mistakes and follies of the US occupation to expand its influence in Iraq and after the hasty withdrawal of the US from Iraq in 2011 to make the country into a client state.
It is hard to envision, therefore, that Iran will pull out of Iraq or stop its endeavours to reassert itself as the dominant power in a country that has become a launching pad for its influence in the region.
On the other hand, the escalation triggered by the killing of Soleimani and the repeated threats by Trump of a “strike back” have closed any window of opportunity for scaling down the confrontation.
If the United States decides to fight Iran, Iraq will most likely be the main battleground in the theatre of the ensuing war, and it will suffer greatly from the scourges it will leave behind.
No war, meanwhile, would allow Iran to declare its victory and consolidate its presence in Iraq, making it a crony nation and a jumping-off point for building an Islamic Shia-led cultural empire in the Middle East.
The world would be wise to be prepared for that.
*This article is an updated version of the one that appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the same title.