By The Cradle’s Iraq Correspondent – Dec 4, 2023
Direct clashes between US and Iraqi forces are not new, the US has struck at them for years. But now the order has been reversed, with Iraqi groups targeting the US military in a campaign to halt Washington’s endless aggressions.
The October 2023 war, which kicked off with the Palestinian resistance’s Al-Aqsa Flood operation and Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, has extended to Baghdad, with Iraqi resistance factions launching drone and missile strikes on US bases after warning Washington to desist in its military support of Tel Aviv.
The US has now responded by targeting Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) headquarters – killing thirteen of its members, injuring countless others, and heightening tensions between Baghdad and Washington.
These strikes inside Iraq have strongly reignited pre-existing calls to expel US military forces from the country. The legal basis for this already exists: in the immediate aftermath of the January 2020 illegal US assassinations of PMU Deputy Leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, Iraq’s parliament voted to end the “international coalition” and eject foreign forces from the country.
Safeguarding Iraq’s sovereignty
In September, while in Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani told CNN that “Iraq no longer needs combat forces, whether from the United States or from the rest of the coalition countries,” because ISIS “no longer poses a threat.”
It is a theme that is more frequently being voiced by US officials and think tanks, as in this Carnegie Endowment assessment that illustrates clearly why ISIS cannot make a comeback in either Syria or Iraq. On 15 November, US Senator Rand Paul introduced a Congressional bill to remove US troops from Syria, arguing that Americans “have had enough of endless wars in the Middle East (West Asia).”
“Yet, 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria with no vital U.S. interest at stake, no definition of victory, no exit strategy, and no congressional authorization to be there.”
Iraqi lawmaker Ammar al-Shibli tells The Cradle that, today, “Iraqi security forces can manage any internal or external battle, and there is no longer a need for the presence of US forces, especially after ISIS became a thing of the past.”
Following the US strike on PMU troops – who were Iraq’s frontline forces in nearly all the country’s battles against ISIS – Baghdad has strongly condemned the operation as a “dangerous escalation,” a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, and a violation of international coalition’s stated mission against ISIS on Iraqi soil.
On 22 November, without directly mentioning the US, government spokesman Bassem al-Awadi, announced that:
“The Iraqi government is solely dedicated to enforcing the law and holding violators accountable, a prerogative exclusively within its purview. No party or foreign agency has the right to assume this role, as it contradicts Iraqi constitutional sovereignty and international law.”
This statement provoked anger amongst political parties and swathes of supporters of the resistance factions, as it did not rise to the level of the actual response to US crimes in Abu Ghraib and Jurf al-Sakhar.
A senior Iraqi official, who declined to be named, tells The Cradle that his government is “being blackmailed by the United States through the US ambassador to Iraq, Alina Romanowski, who has carried several messages from Washington to this effect.”
He says the US has “threatened to cut relations and prevent the arrival of funds — specifically the US dollar — to Iraq,” referring to an economic blockade reminiscent of the one Washington imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2003.
These threats have been conveyed to political and armed factions either directly or through intermediaries. Some of the Iraqi resistance groups have backed off, but notable factions like Kataib Hizbullah, Ansar Allah al-Wafa, Harakat al-Nujaba, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada have rejected the various ultimatums from Washington.
Mounting calls for US withdrawal
As Iraqi political analyst Ali al-Shammari tells The Cradle, “the so-called international coalition is an American lie to continue suspicious activity to strengthen US influence in the region, and for the Americans to return to Iraq again after their withdrawal in 2011 in implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement.”
Since 17 October, the Iraqi resistance factions have entered into a very real war against US military forces because of Washington’s support for Israel’s unprecedented and wildly indiscriminate assault on Gaza. The factions have also targeted illegal US troops based in Syria.
On 21 November, in response to a US drone that killed a member of the PMU on the same day, the infamous Ain al-Assad air base in western Iraq was targeted for the first time by a short-range ballistic missile. Later that evening, US forces responded by shelling PMU headquarters in the Jurf al-Sakhar area, southwest of Baghdad.
The bombing of the PMU headquarters has deeply shocked political and popular circles, particularly given the fact that the PMU is part of Iraq’s official security apparatus and operates under the command of the prime minister and commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.
The head of the Nebni political coalition and Badr forces commander Hadi al-Amiri has called for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq “immediately,” telling The Cradle that “the Iraqi parliament’s decision to withdraw US forces in 2020 is clear and not open to interpretation.”
“The will and laws of Iraq must be respected, as there is no longer a legal justification for the presence of these forces. Iraqi forces no longer need foreign training. We have local academies and trainers capable of this. The excuse of advisers is an American lie.”
Moreover, there are legal implications for the international coalition forces in Iraq after the US bombed the PMU barracks. According to law expert Muayad al-Musawi “by bombing an official Iraqi security force, US forces have legally reclassified themselves as invading forces. No occupying power has the right to justify its attacks against a legitimate force that defends its country.”
The resistance will respond
On 22 November, US Central Command in Iraq announced that its forces “conducted discrete precision strikes against two facilities in Iraq. The strikes were in direct response to the attacks against US and Coalition forces by Iran and Iran-backed groups, including the one in Iraq on November 21, which involved the use of close-range ballistic missiles.”
Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, has condemned the “brutal and treacherous” US bombing operation against Iraqi forces and called for legal action against the US military in accordance with international law, the expulsion of their troops from Iraq, and the restoration of full sovereignty over Iraqi airspace – with no immunity for US forces.
Hussein Munis, head of the Rights movement, emphasized that battles against ISIS like Abu Ghraib and Jurf al-Sakhar — which the PMU liberated in 2014, marking the most significant victory against ISIS in Iraq — only serve to highlight the need to end the presence of international coalition forces, particularly US ones, in Iraq. Munis accuses Washington of employing its military as an occupation force that disregards Iraqi sovereignty – one that has transformed Iraq into a battlefield for West Asian rivalries and a regional base from which the US spies on neighboring countries.
The US strikes on the PMU have moved others to take direct action. Saud al-Saadi, a member of parliament for the Rights bloc, has launched a drive to collect signatures for an extraordinary parliamentary session to prosecute the US for its actions in Iraq. He also says it is high time the Iraqi government implemented the parliament’s decision to expel American forces from Iraqi soil.
There is an ugly history of US strikes on Iraqi security forces, including the PMU, that dates back to 2014. Over the next few years, there were dozens of targeted attacks by the international coalition aimed at diminishing Iraqi military capabilities and its weapons stores – whether by bolstering Iraq-based terrorist forces like Al Qaeda and ISIS, or through the direct military targeting of Iraqi security units.
The list of these US and coalition anti-Iraq operations is a long and shocking one, and some bear detailing.
On 19 October, 2014, US warplanes bombed Iraq’s Joint Operations Commandand the PMU to prevent them from advancing and clearing out ISIS militants in the areas of Al-Rafoush, Al-Mahasna, and Bustan Al-Chalabi located in the Duwailiba axis, west of Baghdad, killing the regiment commander and eight of his soldiers.
On January 18, 2015, US aircraft bombed the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 52nd Brigade with Popular Mobilization gatherings in Baiji, killing 80 fighters and wounding dozens. Two months later, on 12 March, US aircraft targeted the Abu Diab area and raided a position of the Iraqi army’s 14th Division, killing fifty more soldiers and wounding dozens more.
On 6 June, 2016, Adnan al-Shahmani, a former member of parliament for the State of Law political party, revealed that international coalition aircraft targeted the headquarters of the 17th Division and the operations site of one of the PMU in Al-Karma, killing six resistance fighters and wounding eight. Three weeks later, US warplanes bombed a joint security force of the army and tribesmen attacking a gathering of 150 ISIS militants in the Hawija Al-Abar area in the center of Al-Manaseer village, south of Fallujah, killing two soldiersand wounding eight. In Tal Afar, on 24 November, a US drone targeted a PMU meeting at the Tal Afar airport headquarters, causing numerous casualties.
In Anbar, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, units of the PMU’s 14th Brigade affiliated with the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, were directly bombed by the US on 7 August, 2017, killing forty troops and wounding others. On 19 June, 2018, the US airforce struck Kataib Hezbollah quarters on the border with Syria, killing 22 fighters and wounding 12 others.
The targeting escalated in 2018, with the bombing of seven PMF weapons depots, including two in the Najaf Sea on 7 June, another in the Seyouf area of Babil on 30 June, and a third west of Karbala on 6 August. The year ended with the targeting of a warehouse in Dujail, south of Salahuddin, on 19 September, and another in Tuz Khurmatu on 2 October. In 2019, shelling targeted Muzna in Baiji district on 6 June, and another near Balad Air Base on 20 August. The results of the investigation into the incident indicated the involvement of Israeli aircraft in the bombing.
It isn’t a stretch, therefore, to say that direct hostilities between US and Iraqi military forces predate Israel’s Gaza assault and the US support of it. Today, the difference is mainly in the reversal of roles, with Iraqi forces and factions initiating most of the attacks – more than 70 against US military targets in both Iraq and Syria to date.
Presently, as the US-backed war in Gaza continues to escalate, Axis of Resistance factions that include Iraq’s PMU are likely to intensify operations against not just US military targets but also set their sights more broadly on other critical US interests in the region.