Risk of U.S.-Iran shadow conflict in Iraq grows as Tehran-backed militias lash out, lose allies

Risk of U.S.-Iran shadow conflict in Iraq grows as Tehran-backed militias lash out, lose allies

The nearly two-decade-old U.S. military mission in Iraq has entered a dangerous new phase, with critics warning the Biden administration has allowed the mission to carry on without clear parameters or a straightforward end game amid increased attacks by volatile Iranian proxies.

President Biden, who oversaw last year’s disastrously executed military pullout from Afghanistan, declared months ago that the U.S. combat role in Iraq would be over by the end of 2021.

While American forces formally transitioned in December from a combat mission against Islamic State remnants to advising the Iraqi military, analysts say the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops still in Iraq face growing threats, specifically from Iran-backed militias in the country.

The predominantly Shiite Muslim militias — several of which are backed directly by the Iranian military — have grown increasingly unpredictable and erratic during recent months, while their political backers in Baghdad struggled to maintain power and influence within the Iraqi government.

The first two weeks of 2022 saw the militias launch at least four attacks on U.S. military or diplomatic installations, including a rocket attack Thursday that targeted the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The most prominent of the Iraqi Shiite militias is Kata’ib Hezbollah, which U.S. officials say was already launching regular drone and rocket assaults against American personnel throughout 2021.

Kata’ib Hezbollah attacks last summer prompted Mr. Biden to order retaliatory American airstrikes on at least two occasions, targeting the militia’s facilities along the Iraq-Syria border.

The retaliatory strikes fueled critics, who’ve since argued America actually remains very much at war in both Iraq and Syria — and that the Biden administration is allowing U.S. forces to be dragged deeper into a shadow conflict with Iran in both countries that’s putting troops in harm’s way with very little strategic upside.

‘Teenage rebellion’

The risk to U.S. forces is likely to grow even worse in 2022, according to some analysts, who warn the Shiite militias in Iraq are increasingly prone to operating on their own volition regardless of what their Iranian backers may or may not want them to do.

Kata’ib Hezbollah and other groups could intensify their assaults on Americans no matter what they’re told by the theocratic regime in Tehran, which acts as their primary financial backer and military partner.

“Even the Iranians are a bit annoyed with them right now because they aren’t responsive to orders anymore. They’re starting to get very teenage rebellion — do whatever they feel like, even if the Iranians say, ‘Don’t kill an American by accident,’” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely tracks Iraqi politics and militias operating inside the country.

An even worse scenario could materialize if U.S.-Iran negotiations, aimed at securing a new deal to limit Tehran‘s nuclear program, fall apart. In that instance, Tehran could abandon all restraint and give a full green light to its proxies, potentially setting off a wave of drone attacks, suicide bombings, and other strikes aimed squarely at Americans.

“If the U.S.-Iran relationship goes very negative in 2022, the security situation for our troops will go negative as well,” said Mr. Knights. “They could use a new weapons system, something we haven’t seen before, something we wouldn’t be ready for. …All that’s holding them back from doing that is they know that if they kill us, we’ll hit them back.”

The security situation in Iraq has grown more combustible in recent months. In November, for instance, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an attempted assassination via armed drone — an attack that bore the hallmarks of tactics frequently employed by Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi Shiite militias.

Against that backdrop, the continued risk to U.S. troops is fueling debate at home about exactly what Washington can achieve with its presence in both Iraq and neighboring Syria. In each country, the Biden administration’s stated mission for the Pentagon is to advise and train local security forces who are battling what’s left of the once-mighty Islamic State terrorist organization.

But if the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and the nearly 1,000 in Syria are targeted, the administration has made it clear they won’t hesitate to fight back, regardless of who is found to have attacked them.

“They clearly are at risk in the region,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week, referring to American forces in Iraq. “We always have the right of self-defense.”

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went further in a Jan. 9 statement, warning Tehran that America would quickly rally if any U.S. service members are killed by Iranian proxies.

“As Americans, we have our disagreements on politics. …But we are united in our resolve against threats and provocations,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We are united in the defense of our people. We will work with our allies and partners to deter and respond to any attacks carried out by Iran.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been high since former President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. They spiked in January 2020, when a U.S. airstrike killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani while he was visiting in Baghdad with the then-commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, who was also killed by the strike.

Changing dynamics

The Pentagon and White House have given no indication that the U.S. is aiming to fully withdraw its forces from either Iraq or Syria, drawing a clear distinction from the recent total American pullout from Afghanistan.

Many analysts believe it is likely American troops will stay in both Iraq and Syria for years to come, working closely with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish allies, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist group.

But critics contend the stated mission masks Washington’s true aim, which is to limit Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Iraq. They argue it’s foolish to put American men and women in danger in order to prop up an Iraqi government and military that otherwise could collapse and quickly come under near-total Iranian control.

“Iranian influence has been steadily growing since our invasion [in 2003]. We were not able to check or roll back Iranian influence when we had 150,000 troops during the surge in the mid-2000s and we’re not going to be able to do it with a few thousand troops,” said Dan Caldwell, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war who is now the vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together.

The nonprofit organization partners with numerous conservative outfits, including Americans for Prosperity and the Charles Koch Institute.

Mr. Caldwell argues it’s long past time for all U.S. troops to exit Iraq and Syria, and that the fight against Iranian influence has already been lost.

“In essence, Iran won this battle when we overthrew Saddam Hussein,” he said. “Iran is Iraq‘s neighbor. They are heavily embedded within the Iraqi security forces. …Unless we are willing to install another Sunni Baathist strongman in Baghdad, I don’t see an opportunity to significantly roll back Iranian influence in Iraq.”

Mr. Caldwell and other critics who believe the U.S. should withdraw fully from Iraq say that by training and equipping Iraqi security forces, Washington is in some ways aiding the very groups who target Americans.

Indeed, Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed outfits in Iraq are part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization that officially are a part of the Iraqi military.

The PMF played a major role in the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Islamic State and crush the so-called “caliphate” the terror group had established in Iraq and Syria last decade.

However, links between the Iranian government and the PMF are clear.

The January 2020 U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani, for example, also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In addition to commanding Kata’ib Hezbollah, Muhandis was deputy head of the PMF at the time of the strike that killed both he and Solemeini while they were traveling in the same vehicle near Baghdad‘s main airport.

But some analysts contend that while the Iran-PMF links still exist, Tehran‘s direct control over its proxy militias has weakened.

Mr. Knights, the Washington Institute fellow, said Tehran presently wants the militias to do very little beyond “cosmetic” attacks. The reason is partly because Iran doesn’t want to find itself in an all-out conflict with the U.S., but also because Iranian leaders still hope to extract sanctions relief and other concessions from America and in ongoing nuclear talks.
Mr. Knights stressed that the Pentagon is exceedingly careful about its train-and-assist mission with the Iraqi security forces, asserting that no American assistance flows to any militias who might target American forces.

At the same time, Kata’ib Hezbollah and associated groups have seen their political base in Iraq begin to crumble.

In last fall’s Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Fatah Alliance — a political alliance with ties to the Iran-backed militias — lost 28 of its 48 seats. The losses mean the militias have far less political support than they’ve had in years past, although it’s unclear what the new political dynamics will mean for U.S. troops and their security moving forward.

“I have never seen Iraq‘s body politic so willing to take risks pushing back on militias,” said Mr. Knights. “I’ve never seen the militias as isolated as they are now. …In Iraq, the enemy is not in the ascendant. It is relapsing in power.”