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Americans Strike Shi’a Targets in Syria and Iraq: A Blip or a Change of Heart?

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When the Iranians hit two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia with drone strikes in mid-September, the American response was merely to identify the perpetrator – Iran and not their allies the Houthis in Yemen – but not to respond. American forces did not hit Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iranian bases in  Syria; there was no American bombing of Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen; there were no attacks on Iran’s Al-Quds force in Iraq, on Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Iranian bases in Syria. Many in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia,the U.A.E., and Israel, commented on the failure of the Americans to respond, a failure that was in sharp contrast to Israel, which continues to bomb Iranian bases in Syria at will.

By the end of December, the Americans offered a more robust response to Iranian aggression. After an American contractor in Iraq was killed in a rocket attack by Shi’a militia, the American air force went immediately into action. It struck two bases in Syria and three in Iraq of Kataib Hezbollah, a Shi’a militia group supported by Iran, killing at least 25, and wounding 55. There was great relief in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Israel, that the Americans appeared to have changed their policy, and could now be counted on for a muscular response. At least that appears to be the case, but some have pointed out that perhaps that response was forthcoming only because an American had been killed, and that one should not necessarily expect America to respond when there have been no American casualties.

A top Iraqi militia leader warned of a strong response against US forces in Iraq following air strikes in Iraq and Syria overnight that hit several bases of his Iranian-backed group and killed at least 25 [latest total is 55]people.

The US military carried out air strikes on Sunday against the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three US air strikes in Iraq.

“The blood of the martyrs will not be in vain and our response will be very tough on the American forces in Iraq,” senior commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, said late on Sunday. Iran said it strongly condemned the raids as “terrorism.”

Mohandes is a senior commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups mostly consisting of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias that was formally integrated into Iraq’s armed forces.

He is also one of Iran’s most powerful allies in Iraq and formerly headed Kataib Hezbollah, which he founded.

Iraqi security sources said on Monday that US forces in Iraq’s northerly Nineveh province were ramping up security overnight, with US-led coalition jets circling the perimeter of its military bases in Mosul and Qayarah.

Tensions have risen between Tehran and Washington -Iraq’s two main allies – since last year when President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy.

The tension between Iran and the U.S.was red-hot long before Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. For several decades, the Islamic Republic has been brainwashing the Iranian masses with endless accounts of American perfidy and hatred of Muslims; the chant “Death to America” has been Tehran’s favorite slogan since 1979.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and said any attacks by Tehran or proxies harming Americans or allies would be ‘answered with a decisive US response.’

Secretary Pompeo’s statement suggests that from now on, American retaliation will be forthcoming even if Americans have not been hurt; he specifically included as reasons for retaliation any attacks “by Tehran or proxies” on American  “allies”; these would prompt “a decisive US response.” 

“We strongly deny any role in the attack on American forces. This claim without any evidence cannot justify bombing and killing people in violation of international law,” said Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei, quoted by the semi-official news agency Fars.

“=Iran’s Foreign Ministry called on the United States to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The American bombers were responding to the murder of an American contractor; they were in skies over Iraq and Syria for only a matter of minutes. That hardly constitutes a threat either to Iraq’s sovereignty or to its territorial integrity. The great threat to Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity comes from Iranian forces now firmly implanted in Iraq, where they now effectively control much of the southern, Shia-populated south of the country, and have no intention of leaving. They might even wish to promote the secession from Iraq of the Shi’ite south, and its joining fellow Shi’a as part of  Iran. Nor does the government of Iraq have an army sufficiently strong to take on those Iranian forces and get them to leave Iraq, assuming that eventually it would want to.

The air strikes come at a troubled time of protests in Iraq with thousands taking to the streets to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian backers. “They also demand an overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed in unrest as security forces have sought to quell anti-government demonstrations.

The PMF [Popular Mobilization Force, which are almost entirely Shiite] bolstered Iraq’s security forces during their battle to retake a third of the country from Islamic State, helping secure victory against the militants.

They were later formally integrated into Iraq’s official security structure and also wield large political influence.

There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi government on the air strikes. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is backed by Iran and its allies, resigned last month as the protests continued but has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.

Iraq’s Fatih alliance, which holds the second-largest number of seats in parliament and largely consists of [Shi’a] militia leaders, called the air strikes an attack on Iraq’s sovereignty.

The American strikes in late December were not an attack on Iraq’s sovereignty. The bombers flew over a few Kataib Hezbollah sites in Syria and Iraq, dropped their bombs, and flew off. Save for  some soldiers left to guard the Embassy, the Americans have largely left Iraq. Of course some private American contractors remain, to do business, but they are not part of the American military. The U.S. government has no desire to infringe on Iraq’s sovereignty, but they had to respond to the killing of an American contractor. And they wanted to reassure their allies in the region that their previous inaction, after Iran’s attack on Saudi oil installations in September, would not be repeated. The real threat to Iraq’s sovereignty is Iran’s IRGC, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Unlike the Americans, who were eager to leave Iraq, the IRGC fighters are in Iraq to stay, helping to train, and to supply with advanced weaponry, the Shi’a militias that are now far more powerful than the Iraqi Army itself.

The insolent attack by American forces on security forces which targeted the 45th and 46th brigades of the Popular Moralization Forces in the Qaim area is an attack on national sovereignty and on Iraq’s dignity,” it said in a statement.

Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, also condemned the air strikes, calling them a blatant attack on Iraqi sovereignty, security, and stability.

Hezbollah has some gall in decrying the American response to the killing of one of its citizens as “a blatant attack on Iraqi sovereignty, security, and stability.” Most of Lebanon would agree that the only “blatant attack on a  state’s sovereignty, security, and stability” in the Middle East are those conducted by Hezbollah, over more than a decade, on Lebanon.

What shall we make of this American willingness in December to strike Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq? The most pessimistic interpretation would be that we shouldn’t get our hopes up, that such attacks will only take place if an American is killed. In other words, Iran can continue to strike at Saudi, and Emirati, targets, including oil installations, as long as no Americans are harmed. I think, rather, that there has been a sea change in policy, and that between the Iranian attack on Saudi oil installations in September, which elicited no American response, and late December,  after a single American was killed, Washington let loose with a response against Iranian proxies, the Kataib Hezbollah, that was fast, furious, and most effective. The reason for this change, I suggest, was based on the recognition that the previous inaction had deeply disturbed the Saudis, the Emiratis, and even the Israelis, and that a change in policy was needed to reassure them that the coalition against Iranian aggression still stood, and Washington had now embraced as well, along with economic sanctions,  a much more muscular military policy toward Iran. If some had worried that America seemed only in for a penny, it has loudly announced that from now on, it is most definitely in for a pound.

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