Is Iraq really divided on resistance operations against US targets?

The Cradle, December 22, 2023 —

Baghdad grapples with a dual challenge: balancing US threats to stop attacks on its bases in Iraq and Syria, with the unwavering commitment of Iraqi resistance factions to persist until Israel’s war on Gaza ends.

On 8 December, the US embassy in Baghdad was the target of a multi-rocket attack, marking a new phase in the actions of resistance factions against US forces in Iraq and Syria. This response was triggered by Washington’s unwavering support for Israeli forces in their war of aggression against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The operation was by no means isolated as Iraqi resistance factions have been conducting attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria since 17 October, utilizing drones and various missiles.

Missives rapidly arrived from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns, with warnings that Baghdad will face “serious consequences” if measures are not taken to stop the attacks. Blinken announced that Washington would “respond to any hostile acts targeting American personnel or the armed forces of the mother government.”

These strikes have placed Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shiaa al-Sudani in a confrontation – real or sham – against his country’s resistance factions, prompting him to call the attacks “acts of terrorism” that “endanger Iraq’s internal security.” The comments were welcomed by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin who spoke with the Iraqi premier that day. 

Although security forces swiftly apprehended those behind the attacks, Kataeb Hezbollah (KH), a major faction within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), while not claiming responsibility, vowed further operations against US forces until the Gaza aggression ceased, calling the resistance acts the start of “new rules of engagement.”

Government response and ongoing investigations 

After the embassy incident, Sudani issued a statement in which he emphasized that his government would continue to protect diplomatic missions:

“The perpetrators of these attacks are committing an insult to Iraq, its stability and security, and that these unruly, lawless groups do not represent … or reflect the will of the Iraqi people, and it does not reflect the national Iraqi decision expressed by the Iraqi government on several official occasions.”

In the statement seen by The Cradle, Sudani added that “tampering with Iraq’s stability, abusing internal security, attempting to jeopardize Iraq’s political reputation, and targeting safe places protected by the force of law, customs, and international agreements, are acts of terrorism.”

On 14 December, the Iraqi government announced the arrest of individuals involved in the embassy attack. Major General Yahya Rasool revealed that “after an intensive intelligence effort,” security services made several arrests. However, the government remained tight-lipped about their identities and affiliations.

A high-level Iraqi security source informs The Cradle that 13 individuals were detained, including main executors and logistical support personnel. The detainees provided no information about their affiliations during initial investigations. 

The source also reveals ongoing efforts to apprehend a group in Sinjar planning missile strikes on a US base in Syria’s Hasakah city.

Economic and military threats from the US 

Since 2021, Washington has stationed approximately 2,500 soldiers in Iraq as part of the International Coalition to Combat ISIS, extending their presence well beyond the timeframe of the terror group’s defeat. Despite Baghdad’s assertion that this is only within an advisory capacity, these foreign forces have engaged in combat missions, targeting areas such as Abu Ghraib, Jurf al-Nasr, and Kirkuk. 

Political sources close to decision-making circles in Baghdad tell The Cradle that Washington has delivered messages to the Sudani government, most of which were veiled threats that referred to international economic sanctions on Iraq and direct military intervention if the government was unable to stop resistance operations against US military bases in the country. 

The sources also reveal that the US has been pressuring Iraq by manipulating the flow of dollars to the Central Bank, risking a severe economic crisis. Simultaneously, the US has threatened to withdraw US oil companies from Iraq. 

Political analyst Imad al-Atrash characterized this dynamic, stating:

“America treats Iraq as its backyard, using economic leverage to coerce decisions in foreign relations, disregarding the preferences of the Iraqi government. This necessitates a robust government with effective tools to counter Washington’s aggression.”

Washington’s threats and pressures have created a rift in the Iraqi political establishment – the question that remains is whether these divisions are real or merely to placate the US. One faction, associated with the Coordination Framework, the largest Shia political bloc from which Sudani emerged, aligns with political groups directly linked to the resistance factions. 

The other faction opposes any confrontation with Washington, even diplomatically, seeking to neutralize the resistance factions and enforce a policy of silence and non-confrontation.

A divided house 

Despite The Cradle’s attempts to obtain an official government comment, Prime Minister Sudani’s team refused to divulge details of the steps taken to arrest the perpetrators or the government’s stance on potential confrontation with armed factions. However, government spokesman Bassem al-Awadi, tells The Cradle

“The presence of the international coalition in Iraq, including the American forces, has training and advisory missions, and any armed activity targeting those forces outside the military institution can be considered an act outside the scope of the law.”

Yet, illustrating the political divide on the matter, Member of the Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, Waad al-Qaddo, insists that:

“The Islamic resistance factions are an integral part of Iraq’s political and security structure. Without them, Iraq would not have been liberated from the terrorist organization ISIS … the factions’ attacks against the American forces would not have occurred.” 

The Al-Fatah Alliance, led by politician Hadi al-Amiri, describes the resistance operations against US forces as “natural, and coming in response to Washington’s support for Israel.” As the leader of the coalition, Ali Hussein, explains to The Cradle:

“The strikes of the Islamic resistance factions on the American forces cannot be stopped, and they do not only come within the framework of supporting Gaza, but rather they are part of the plan to thwart the Israeli plan aimed at dividing the region, controlling it, and reaching the dream of a greater Israel.” 

Diplomatic efforts to curb the resistance 

Private sources indicate that efforts by the Iraqi government to mediate with the resistance factions, urging them to cease targeting US bases, have faced resistance. An undisclosed source informs The Cradle that during the initial days of the Gaza war, the Sudani administration mediated with various figures. 

While some factions, such as the Imam Ali Brigades, were persuaded to adopt diplomatic methods, others, including Ansar Allah Al-Awfiyya, Al-Nujaba Movement, Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, and KH, rejected these mediations.

It is worth noting that the Imam Ali Brigades are one of the four pro-Sistani factions that split from the PMU back in 2020, purportedly over disagreements on steps the PMU was taking since the territorial defeat of ISIS. 

The Secretary-General of KH, Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi, said in a statement seen by The Cradle, that:

“The Brigades are continuing with their approach against the occupation, unconcerned with the pressures and obstacles, bearing the cost of their resistance work, and steadfast on the path to breaking the thorn of the occupation and expelling it from Iraq.”

The leader of the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, Abu Alaa al-Wala’i, commented to The Cradle through a response from his office:

“We in the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades respect all mediations and appreciate their [the government’s] keenness to communicate with the resistance factions and their leaders, and we believe in the movement of some political figures, but this issue cannot be discussed until the Gaza crisis ends.”

But Aqeel al-Rudaini, a leader of the Victory Coalition, says the Sudani government will continue to stick to a middle ground:  

“The government has a firm position on the Gaza issue as announced at the United Nations, and is trying to exploit its relationship with Washington to push it to resolve the Gaza crisis and alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians, on the one hand, while lifting the embarrassment from them in front of the resistance factions, on the other hand.” 

He adds that Washington “should understand the anger of the Iraqi people, which was demonstrated through peaceful protests at times and with weapons at other times.”

Persistent resistance 

Security and strategic expert Fadel Abu Ragheef describes ongoing negotiations between the Sudani government and Iraq’s resistance factions. The objective, he says, is to persuade them to halt attacks on bases housing US forces, as Washington intensifies pressure on Baghdad.

Ihsan al-Shammari, head of the Center for Political Thinking, does not hold out much hope that these negotiations will succeed, saying:

“The armed factions’ escalation of their military operations against the American forces occurs for many reasons. The first stems from the nature of the accumulated hostility towards the US from these factions, and the second comes within the framework of the slogan of unity of the arenas with which it was launched.” 

“These factions are to support Gaza, and a double pressure card toward America in two arenas: the Palestinian arena to limit Washington’s support for Israel, and the Iraqi arena with the aim of pressuring the exit of US forces from Iraq,” he explains.

As Shammari predicts, recent events suggest that US efforts to curb resistance faction attacks have failed, despite extraordinary pressure applied on the Iraqi government. 

Pentagon sources have revealed that US force bases have been subjected to at least 102 attacks since mid-October, highlighting the resilience of the resistance factions against external pressures and their commitment to the Palestinian cause – along with other key members of West Asia’s Axis of Resistance. 

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