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Iraqis, bristling over Israeli airstrike, renew call for US troops to get out

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi (U.S. Department of State/WikiCommons)

News that Israel was behind airstrikes in Iraq has reinvigorated calls to oust U.S. forces from the country.

A U.S. official confirmed Friday that Israel had struck a base for the Hashd al Shaabi, an umbrella group of Shiite-dominated militias also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, many with deep links to Iran. Two Iranian commanders were reported killed in the attack, which occurred in July.

It was unclear whether Israel was behind three other explosions that have destroyed militias’ weapons depots in Iraq.

The confirmation coincided with an edict from Grand Ayatollah Kazem Haeri, a powerful Iraqi cleric based in Iran who is thought to be a mentor to some of Iraq’s top militia leaders. He blamed both Israel and the U.S. for the attack and proscribed American troops’ presence in Iraq.

“I declare it is forbidden for any American military force or its ilk to remain in Iraq under any pretext: whether for military training and advising, or for counter-terrorism,” Haeri said in a statement issued from the Iranian city of Qom.

Haeri’s statement followed similar condemnations from the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi (better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis), who accused U.S. forces on Wednesday of conducting reconnaissance on Hashd bases and bringing in Israeli drones for the strikes.

The U.S. official who confirmed the strike said Washington “strongly supports Israel’s right to self-defense,” adding, “the United States condemns the Iranian regime’s provocative actions in Iraq.” The official was not authorized to speak publicly, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

There are roughly 5,000 American troops stationed across Iraq, providing training, assistance and advice to Iraq’s security forces.

During the fight against Islamic State, U.S. troops even cooperated — albeit uneasily — with the Hashd, which was formed as an all-volunteer force in 2014 to counter the extremist threat. It has since become a formal part of Iraq’s armed forces.

Since Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq in 2017, there have been perennial calls for U.S. forces to leave. (Iraqi lawmakers railed against the U.S. presence after President Trump’s unannounced visit to American troops in the country in December.)

Iraq’s national security council, which is headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, issued a statement Friday saying that the Hashd had a “prominent role in combating terror,” and that the government had a responsibility to protect it, along with all of Iraq’s military formations.

Earlier this month, Abdul Mahdi had prohibited all military flights, both foreign and Iraqi, from using Iraqi airspace without permission.

Two officials with the Trump administration, speaking to reporters anonymously to discuss internal matters, refused to say whether Israel was behind the explosions, and speculated they could have been accidents due to improper storage and the extreme summer heat. (Explosions in weapons depots are not an uncommon occurrence in Iraq, where temperatures in August regularly top 110 degrees.)

Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson said the U.S. supported Iraqi sovereignty and had “repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by neighbors that could lead to violence in Iraq.”

“Iraqis have a right to control their own internal security and protect their democracy. In particular, Iran must not use Iraqi territory to threaten other countries in the region,” he said.

Israel has conducted dozens of airstrikes against Iran-affiliated groups in Syria to deny them access to advanced weapons and missiles that could target Israeli cities.

The July attack would be the first example of that campaign extending to Iraq, whose government has long walked a tightrope between Tehran and Washington.

For the last few days, senior American and Israeli officials have exchanged messages aimed at staking out each nation’s position regarding the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, which Israel views as a significant threat to its citizens.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted at Israel’s involvement, telling journalists who accompanied him on a state visit to Ukraine that “we will act — and are currently acting — against [Iran] wherever it is necessary.”

In a Thursday interview on Israeli television, Netanyahu said: “I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere. Iran is a country, a power, who has declared its desire to annihilate Israel. It is trying to establish bases against us everywhere. In Iran itself, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen.”

Israel’s military did not claim responsibility for the attack. Yet an expansion of its anti-Iran campaign, said Hisham Hashimi, a Baghdad-based security analyst, could lead to reprisals against U.S. personnel.

“Haeri’s fatwa is a green light for targeting U.S. interests and even American citizens in Iraq,” Hashimi said in a phone interview.

He added that Iraqi and military personnel who work with the U.S., even local staff at the embassy, could find themselves the target of reprisals.

Though the U.S. and Israel have been in lockstep on operations in Syria, it’s likely that a number of U.S. officials “are displeased with Israel’s actions” in Iraq, said Amos Yadlin, the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said in an interview.

The U.S. confirmation of the strike, Yadlin said, was a response to “the pace of operations attributed to Israel and the realization that it wasn’t a one-time thing” and concerns that it would be the U.S. that will face reprisals.

Yet Israel shouldn’t expect the same freedom of action it enjoys in Syria, said Assaf Orion, a retired Israeli brigadier general who is also associated with the Institute for National Security Studies, especially since the United States’ sensitivities in Iraq are explained by “how heavily invested it is, its stronger interests, significant stationed troops, and its important relationship with local government.”


© 2019 the Los Angeles Times