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Once again, Iraq caught up in escalating US-Iran tensions

Once again, Iraq caught up in escalating US-Iran tensions

2019/05/18 | 00:20

(Hatha al-Youm | Iraq News)- When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with Iraqi

officials in Baghdad last week as tensions mounted between America and Iran, he

delivered a nuanced message: If you’re not going to stand with us, stand aside.The message, relayed to The Associated Press by two Iraqi

government officials, underscores Iraq’s delicate position: Its government is

allied with both sides of an increasingly contentious confrontation.As tensions escalate, there are concerns that Baghdad could

once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery. The

country hosts more than 5,000 US troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed

militias, some of whom want those US forces to leave.“The big question is how Iraqi leaders will deal with

(their) national interests in a country where loyalty to external powers is

widespread at the expense of their own nation,” Iraqi political analyst Watheq

al-Hashimi said. “If the state cannot put these (Iranian-backed militias) under

control, Iraq will become an arena for an Iranian-American armed conflict.”Despite a series of provocative moves on both sides,

President Donald Trump has said he doesn’t want a war with Iran and has even

said he is open to dialogue. But tension remains high, in part given the

region’s fraught history.For Iraq to be a theater for proxy wars is not new. The

Shiite-majority country lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the

mostly Sunni Arab world, led by powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and has long been a

battlefield in which the Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy played out.During America’s eight-year military presence that began

with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US troops and Iranian-backed militiamen fought

pitched battles around the country, and scores of US troops were killed or

wounded by the militia forces armed with sophisticated Iranian-made weapons.American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in

2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle the ISIS group after it seized

vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq’s

second-largest city, Mosul. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as

Iraqi forces regrouped and drove ISIS out in a costly three-year campaign.

Iranian-backed militias fought alongside US-backed Iraqi troops against ISIS,

gaining outsized influence and power.Now, amid an escalating conflict between the US and Iran,

Iraq is once again vulnerable to becoming caught up in the power play. An

attack targeting US interests in Iraq would be detrimental to the country’s

recent efforts at recovering and reclaiming its status in the Arab world.Earlier this year, Trump provoked outrage in Baghdad when he

said he wanted US troops to stay in Iraq so they can “watch Iran,” suggesting a

changing mission for American troops there.On May 8, Pompeo made a lightning, previously unannounced

trip to the Iraqi capital following the abrupt cancellation of a visit to

Germany, and as the United States had been picking up intelligence that Iran is

threatening American interests in the Middle East.The two Iraqi officials said Pompeo relayed intelligence

information the US had received about a threat to US forces in Iraq — but kept

it vague. They said he did not specify the nature of the threat. The officials,

speaking on condition of anonymity to divulge confidential information, said

Pompeo told the Iraqis that America did not expect them to side with the US in

any confrontation with Iran, but that they should not side against America. In

other words, stand aside.A few days later, as US-Iranian tensions continued to rise,

the State Department ordered all non-essential, non-emergency government staff

to leave the country.US officials said Pompeo told the Iraqis the US had an

“inherent right to self-defense” and would use it if US personnel, facilities

or interests are attacked by Iran or its proxies in Iraq or anywhere else.The three officials, who were not authorized to publicly

discuss the private meetings in Baghdad and spoke on condition of anonymity,

said Pompeo was not contemplating any pre-emptive strikes on Iran or the use of

Iraqi territory to stage military operations against Iran. Pompeo’s message,

the officials said, was that the US wants to avoid conflict but would respond

or defend itself if necessary.The secretary told reporters on the flight that his meetings

with Iraq’s president and prime minister were intended to demonstrate US

support for “a sovereign, independent” Iraq, free from the influence of

neighboring Iran. Pompeo also said he wanted to underscore Iraq’s need to

protect Americans in their country.A general at Iraq’s Defense Ministry said Iraq was taking

precautionary security measures in light of the information about threats

against US interests, although those measures have not reached the highest

levels.“Iraqi forces are worried that American forces could be

targeted by factions loyal to Iran,” said the official, who spoke on condition

of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He added that

any attack on US troops could come as retaliation if the United States were to

carry out a military operation against Iran.The heightened tensions between Iran and the US come a year

after Trump pulled America out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and

as the White House ordered an aircraft carrier and bombers into the region over

a still-unexplained threat from Iran.On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil

tankers off its eastern coast were targeted by sabotage. On Tuesday, Yemen’s

Iran-allied Houthi rebels said they launched seven drones to target Saudi

Arabia. The drones stuck pumping stations along the kingdom’s crucial East-West

Pipeline, causing minor damage, Saudi officials say.On the streets of Baghdad, some shrugged off the rising

tensions while others worried their country could be sucked into another war.Aqil Rubaei said he was worried that his country, which has

been at war since a year before he was born, will be the place where the US and

Iran will settle their accounts. The 38-year-old was born in 1981, a year after

Iran and Iraq began their eight-year war and was 9 years old when Saddam

Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait leading to a destructive war that forced Iraq

out of Kuwait and 13 years of crippling sanctions.In 2003, the US invaded and removed Saddam, leading to the

rise of extremist groups that culminated in 2014 with the ISIS group capturing

large parts of Iraq and Syria and declaring a so-called caliphate. The war that

followed left entire Iraqi cities and towns destroyed until Iraq declared

victory in 2017.“Iraqi people are fed up with war,” said Rubaei inside his

cosmetics shop in Baghdad’s bustling Karrada neighborhood. “We don’t want Iraq

to become an arena for an Iranian-American war.”











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