While the US announced, after the return of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi from Washington in August 2020, that it would reduce the size of its forces in Iraq by a third, to keep 3,500 personnel whom President Donald Trump promised to withdraw gradually over the next three years, this announcement did not stop the armed Shiite factions from continuing their missile attacks on the sites of the US forces, especially the area of ​​the US Embassy in Baghdad and the vicinity of the airport. This prompted Washington to threaten to close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad and to respond to those launching the attacks, which would bring political and economic losses to Iraq.

Escalation of attacks on US forces and interests

The months of August and September 2020 witnessed an escalation in the number of attacks on those sites, without any casualties. Those attacks seem to have two goals: first, to embarrass the Kadhimi government, show it as weak, and keep it under constant threat to prevent it from getting closer to the US side and keep it on the defensive, especially after the US warm welcome to Kadhimi during his visit to Washington in August 2020; and second, to keep the US forces and the logistical operations associated with their presence under constant pressure. Those operations are mostly adopted by unknown factions and groups, such as Ahl al-Kahf (the People of the Cave), Osbat al-Thaereen (League of the Revolutionaries), and Awliya al-Dam (the Avengers of Blood), which are believed to be mere fronts of well-known factions, such as Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Iraqi Party of God), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), and Al-Nujaba (the Nobles). Consequently, those strikes avoid inflicting casualties on the US side, for fear that the US would react strongly (as was the case in the bombing that killed 25 members of the Hezbollah Battalions in Al-Qaim at the end of 2019, and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January 2020).

However, new tactics have recently been adopted by the armed factions, the most prominent of which is attacking convoys of companies or individuals contracting to transport the equipment of US forces. This tactic aims to deter Iraqi civilians from dealing with US forces, but it may also aim to allow specific companies licensed by those factions to obtain contracts from those forces. There have been multiple attacks in Babil, southern Baghdad, Dhi Qar, and other places, targeting transport trucks, often without any evidence that they are transporting equipment of the US forces except for the data of those factions.

The other new tactic includes expanding the list of targets of those factions to include non-US diplomatic missions, as happened when an explosive device exploded in Baghdad during the passage of a diplomatic convoy of the British Embassy on 15 September 2020. The motives of this action are not clear. Also unclear is whether it was intended to target the British mission. What is noticeable, however, is that the incident took place shortly after the targeting of the headquarters of a British security company in the Qadisiyah area in Baghdad on 3 September 2020. That company protects the security of Baghdad Airport. The Hezbollah Battalions in Iraq used to control the main VIP lounge at Baghdad Airport. The Kadhimi government cancelled the contract awarded to a company related to this organisation, which deepened the tension between the two sides. In the first operation of its kind, a centre for teaching English in Najaf named "The American Institute" was targeted.

The US message and the Iraqi move

In light of what appears to be the government's incapability to deal with the missile launchers, the US sent a strong message on 27 September 2020 through a phone conversation between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iraqi President Barham Salih, the content of which is that the US has information about Iranian preparations for a major attack in October 2020 that would target one of the US interests, that President Trump is seriously considering closing the US Embassy in Baghdad to prevent the Iranian side and the factions associated with it from continuing to attack and threaten the Embassy and its members, that the US will take firm measures in the event of new attacks, and that those measures would affect the sites of the factions of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) and some Shiite leaders.

The fact that the message of the Americans was sent through Saleh and not Kadhimi might be a sign of disappointment at Kadhimi's incapability to act against the factions, or might be an attempt to expand the circle of discussion of this topic to include the Kurdish and Sunni circles rather than remaining limited to the internal debate in the Shiite circle. President Barham Salih conveyed this message in a meeting that brought together Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the leaders of the political blocs, except for Hadi al-Ameri and Nouri al-Maliki. In the meeting, Saleh and Kadhimi talked about the US threat to close the Embassy and carry out unilateral military actions, and to include Iraqi political leaders in US sanctions lists, as well as the expected cessation of the exemption granted to Iraq to import gas and electricity from Iran, which was extended for a period of 60 days instead of 120 days, as was previously the case after Kadhimi took office in May 2020. Kadhimi also met with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad Iraj Masjedi, and informed him of the necessity for Iran to stop supporting those factions and providing them with political or ideological cover. Subsequently, Kadhimi sent his foreign minister Fuad Hussein to Tehran with the same message.

Reports indicate that the US Secretary of State has actually requested the US ambassador in Baghdad Matthew Toller to prepare a plan to evacuate the Embassy. There are also nearly 12 Western diplomatic missions that plan to close in the event the Americans evacuate their Embassy in Baghdad, given their great reliance on the logistical and informational support provided by the US side. It appears that the Americans are considering moving their diplomatic and military centre of gravity to Erbil where they would enjoy adequate protection.

After receiving this threat, the government escalated its security operations to search for rocket launchers. The Counter-Terrorism Service was deployed in Baghdad for this purpose. Muqtada al-Sadr also issued a strong statement in which he held factions affiliated with the PMC responsible for the recent bombings and assassinations, considering that it is no longer sufficient for some of the PMC leaders to express their dissatisfaction with those actions. He said that, instead, “we should strive prudently and patiently to put an end to the transformation of Iraq into an arena for the struggle of others. Let us strive together for the independence, sovereignty, safety and security of Iraq ... Otherwise, Iraq would be lost from our hands". Subsequently, the Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri and bringing together most of the factions close to Tehran, issued a statement declaring that it stood against "any action targeting diplomatic missions and official institutions and that those actions weaken the state and undermine its prestige, which is unacceptable and leads to dangerous results". The statement also called on members of the PMC to "set an example in adhering to the law and avoiding anything that tarnishes the image of this holy entity".

The statements of the pro-Iranian Shiite forces that refuse to target foreign diplomatic missions seem to be consistent with the Iranian position expressed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh who, on 17 September 2020, condemned "any attacks on diplomatic delegations and missions". Afterwards, the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement expressing the same position. Iran's position could be understood in terms of its tendency to de-escalate the confrontation with the US and deprive Trump of an excuse to rally domestic public opinion against it and use the conflict with it to improve his chances in the upcoming elections.

It seems that the fragmentation that affected the camp of the [pro-Iran] "loyalist" factions after the assassination of al-Muhandis and the absence of a central leadership continue to play a role in strengthening the most extremist elements and in the multiplicity of the power centres within them. This was reflected in the attitude towards the US presence in Iraq among the more extreme Shiite factions that wish to continue to target US interests in Iraq to push the Americans to leave Iraq completely, and the other Shiite factions that fear the consequences of those actions, as they may involve targeting their forces with strikes by the US-led coalition aircraft or exposing their leaders to US sanctions, in addition to the political and economic consequences for Iraq in light of the financial crisis it suffers from as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Conclusions

The US threat to close the US Embassy in Baghdad indicates that the US administration feels that the Kadhimi government has not done enough to put an end to the attacks by the factions on the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport, and that the US administration also does not accept that the Iraqi government take a middle position in the conflict between Tehran and Washington, and wants more serious steps whereby the Kadhimi government would prove that it is working seriously to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq.

The US probably does not want to leave any basic cards in the hands of the Iranians before the date of the next elections. At the same time, the Trump administration does not seem to have abandoned its narrow view of Iraq in terms of the conflict with Iran. Neither does it want to be patient for a long time to see greater clarity in the Iraqi position. Many observers warn that Kadhimi cannot introduce a fundamental adjustment in the internal balance of power and limit the influence of the pro-Tehran factions. Rather, he needs more time and a long-term strategy to strengthen official security institutions.

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