US presence in Iraq threatened by American air strikes, Baghdad warns

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Baghdad has warned Washington it is prepared to end the co-operation that allows the US to keep a significant military presence in Iraq, over the repeated American air strikes against Iran-linked militants in the country. 

The US, which has launched a series of attacks on Tehran-aligned groups, was creating “instability and threatens to entangle Iraq in the cycle of conflict”, Yahya Rasool, a military spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, said in a statement. “This trajectory compels the Iraqi government more than ever to terminate the mission of the coalition,” he added.

Rasool was referring to the international military coalition established in 2014 to combat the Isis militants who were sweeping across Iraq and Syria. The US, as part of this arrangement, maintains about 2,500 troops in Iraq, who advise and train local forces combating the remnants of the extremist group. By launching the strikes, Iraq has accused the US of deviating from this mission.

The rising tensions underscore how, more than 20 years on from the US invasion of Iraq, American influence over Baghdad is waning. It is being eclipsed by Iran, which now wields unrivalled influence on the Iraqi political establishment. 

Iran-linked militias have grown to become powerful military and political forces in Iraq, and have launched more than 170 attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria since the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel, an important US ally.

The US has retaliated with a series of air strikes, while the hostilities have presented President Joe Biden’s administration with one of its most acute challenges in the region.

A US drone strike in Baghdad on Wednesday killed the senior commander of a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, the latest retaliatory move by American forces following an attack on a base in Jordan that killed three US soldiers last month. 

The US said a Kataib Hizbollah commander responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces was killed in the strike. A person familiar with the matter named him as Wisam Mohammed “Abu Baqer” al-Saadi, the commander in charge of Kataib Hizbollah’s operations in Syria. 

Although Kataib Hizbollah announced it would suspend further attacks on American troops in the wake of the incident, assaults by other groups have continued.

Baghdad condemned Wednesday’s strike on a residential neighbourhood in the Iraqi capital, calling it a “blatant assassination . . . showing no regard for civilian lives or international laws”.

“By this act, the American forces jeopardise civil peace, violate Iraqi sovereignty, and disregard the safety and lives of our citizens,” Rasool said.

Washington and Baghdad recently began talks to determine the future of the US-led coalition’s presence in the country and the scope of its mission.

The Biden administration has been keen to wind down its troop presence in the Middle East. But it also wants to show that its withdrawal is not due to pressure from the militants, and that talks about its presence in Iraq were not related to the recent escalation.  

The US military last weekend struck 85 targets at seven sites in Iraq and Syria in response to the deadly drone attack on its service members in Jordan, which also injured 41 service members. It has also attacked Houthi targets in Yemen.

The retaliatory campaign has heightened fears that Washington is being drawn into a wider regional conflagration, triggered by Israel’s four-month-old war in Gaza.

While Iranian officials have repeatedly said they do not want a war in the region, analysts said the continued targeting of Tehran-linked armed groups was risking further instability. 

Kataib Hizbollah is part of The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of militants that has emerged since the war in Gaza began. The IRI also comes under Iran’s Axis of Resistance, the anti-US and anti-Israel coalition that also includes Hamas, the Houthis and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

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