BEIRUT, Jan 23, (AP): Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighboring Iraq, but the US killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort, stoking anti- American feelings that Tehran hopes to exploit to help realize the goal.
The Jan 3 killing has led Iraq’s parliament to call for the ouster of US troops, but there are many lingering questions over whether Iran will be able to capitalize on the sentiment. An early test will be a “million-man” demonstration against the American presence, called for by infl uential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and scheduled for Friday. It is not clear whether the protesters will try to recreate a New Year’s Eve attack on the US Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militias in the wake of US airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen along the border with Syria. Iran might simply try to use the march to telegraph its intention to keep up the pressure on US troops in Iraq. But experts say Iran can be counted on to try to seize what it sees as an opportunity to push its agenda in Iraq, despite an ongoing mass uprising that is targeting government corruption as well as Iranian infl uence in the country.
“Iran is unconstrained by considerations of Iraqi sovereignty, domestic public opinion, or legality when compared to the Western democracies,” said David Des Roches, an expert with The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “This is Iran’s strategic advantage; they should be expected to press it.”
A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-US militias that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi lawmakers sympathetic to its cause. Despite usually trying to keep attacks at a level below what might provoke an American response, Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk in December, killing a US contractor and wounding several US and Iraqi troops.
The US responded first with deadly airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria, then followed with the Jan 3 drone attack that killed Gen Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military officer, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al- Muhandis as they left Baghdad’s airport.
The severity of the US response surprised Iran and others, and it had the unanticipated result of bolstering Tehran’s political approach by prompting the Iraqi parliament to pass the nonbinding resolution pushed by pro-Iran political factions calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country.
In response, President Donald Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq. US President Trump hinted that sanctions on Iraq were still a possibility in a bilateral meeting with Iraq’s president Wednesday, the first since a US drone strike on Iraqi soil killed a top Iranian general, straining Washington- Baghdad ties. Iraq’s President Barham Saleh met with Trump on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland amid threats from Iran-backed militia groups promising to exact revenge should he sit down with the American president. It was the first high-level meeting since the Jan 3 US drone strike that killed Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad’s airport. The attack provoked the ire of Iraqi officials across the political spectrum and lead to the passing of a non-binding resolution to oust US troops from Iraq.
In response, Trump threatened sanctions in Iraq, which would have profound and devastating effects on the country’s economy if realized. Trump said Washington and Baghdad have had “a very good relationship” and that the two countries had a “host of very difficult things to discuss,” in remarks to reporters.
Asked whether the administration was still considering slapping sanctions on Iraq, Trump said: “We’ll see what happens because we have to do things on our terms.” Saleh interjected here, saying the two countries shared common interests including the fight against extremism, regional stability and an independent Iraq. “And we’re also involved with them in their oil business, and that’s always been very important from their standpoint and from our standpoint. So we have a lot of very positive things to talk about,” said Trump.
Asked whether there was a plan for US troops to remain in Iraq, Trump said: “We’re down to 5,000. So we’re down to a very low number – historically low. And we’ll see what happens.” There are approximately 5,200 US troops in Iraq advising and assisting Iraqi security forces in the fight against the Islamic State group. The bilateral meeting came amid threats from Iraqi militia group Kataeb Hezbollah, backed by Iran, which warned Saleh to avoid meeting Trump or not to return to Baghdad, in statements posted online. The same group threatened lawmakers from voting against the resolution to oust US troops.