Despite increasing attacks led by Iran-backed Shia militias in Baghdad, Washington wants to avoid a major escalation of tensions ahead of the crucial US elections. Tehran has its own reasons to de-escalate.
At a time when the two US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden were busy exchanging barbs in the televised debate, rockets launched by Iran-backed Shia militias flew over the American embassy and other Western diplomatic posts in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
The increasing attacks have led to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to warn the Iraqi government to rein in its Shia militias or face consequences, according to some Iraqi government sources.
Pompeo has threatened to withdraw its diplomats from Baghdad should the attacks continue against the US embassy. Due to the fact that it remains the largest American diplomatic post in size across the world, various power circles have raised speculations about what is occurring.
The most debated questions include: Will the US conduct a major offensive against Shia militias, most of whom are more loyal to Tehran than Baghdad? Will Washington move its embassy to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdish regional government in order to punish Baghdad’s inadequate response against Shia militias? Will the US completely withdraw from Iraq before the elections?
“This [a war with Iran] is highly unlikely in an election period,” says Talha Abdulrazaq, an award-winning academic and writer with a specialism in Middle Eastern strategic and security affairs.
“The US government is not going to want to engage in a massive war with Iran so close to elections, and even after elections they will likely step up their maximum pressure sanctions regime on Tehran rather than risk an all out conflagration, particularly not with an isolationist administration like Trump's,” Abdulrazaq told TRT World.
Despite increasing attacks in Baghdad, both Washington and Tehran want to avoid an uncontrolled major escalation of tensions right before the crucial US elections for their own reasons.
The Trump administration does not want any sort of war - one of the president’s highly-emphasised election promises, is putting an end to US military intervention across the world.
During his presidency, Trump has sought to minimise, or in some cases, completely end major US military engagements in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. He has repeatedly argued that they are too costly and unrelated to crucial needs of American people.
On the other hand, Iran’s moderate government hopes Trump will lose and the new American administration, which would be led by the former US President Barack Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden, will again make peace with Tehran.
Despite the unwillingness to fight on both sides, the question still lingers over why more attacks are happening in Iraq.
Why the US embassy is a main target
Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish political analyst, who was an advisor to the former Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, points to a particular power struggle inside Iran to explain the increasing degrees of recent attacks in Iraq.
“There is a power struggle in Iran between hardliners led by the Revolutionary Guards and moderates led by the country’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani,” says the analyst.
“The Iranian government does not want to have a war with the US, waiting for the results of the November elections. But the Revolutionary Guards want to take an immediate revenge of their former leader Qasem Soleimani’s assassination,” Bulovali tells TRT World.
Bulovali thinks that Iraqi Shia militias under the control of Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been used to launch recent attacks against American assets, including the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone.
“They [Revolutionary Guards] have different plans against the US presence in Iraq. But for them, among other targets, the US embassy is very important,” says Bulovali, explaining why recent attacks target the American diplomatic post in Baghdad.
“If they are able to get the US out of Iraq, that would be a great revenge against the Americans, according to their thinking. As a result, they work through different things, keeping pressure high in Iraq,” he says.
According to Bulovali, there is a certain plan to attack the embassy directly, but “they could not do it until now.”
“Despite opposition from Iranian, US and Iraqi governments, because some Shia militias [backed by the Revolutionary Guards] are not controlled by any of those governments, they could do anything,” he says.
If the attack against the embassy happens in some way, it will mean Iran’s political forces have been completely broken up and Tehran will face Washington in a direct military engagement, shares Bulovali.
What would the US do?
Revolutionary Guards-led attacks might be the main reason why Pompeo has threatened Iraqi authorities with the withdrawal of US diplomats. Pompeo’s language partly suggests that if the Iraqi government cannot defend the US embassy, America will definitely ensure its protection, signalling possible retaliations against Shia militias.
Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kazimi, who is supported by Washington, has recently sent his foreign minister to Iran with an implicit American message that in the case of the embassy being hit, Washington’s response would be harsh, with the possible attack of the main headquarters of Iran-backed Shia militias. This, too, is according to Bulovali.
Other experts voiced similar thoughts.
“As for the militias, if they continue to get out of hand then the Pentagon will likely authorise limited drone strikes against targets to deter future hostilities, the precedent being the killing of both Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January,” says Abdulrazaq.
Mehmet Alaca, a Turkish researcher, who has studied Shia militias and wrote a thesis on Iraq’s Hashd al Shaabi, an umbrella group for various Shia militias, also finds the US assassinations of major militia leaders a possibility.
“Despite Kazimi’s efforts to limit the reach of Shia militias in Iraq, they continue to pursue their angry attitudes to get the Americans out of Iraq. As a result, after a brief period, which has been designed to see what Kazimi could do against them, the US appears to come back to its hawkish position against Shia militias,” Alaca tells TRT World.
“If the US cannot reach an agreement with Iran over controlling acts of Shia militias in Iraq, some attacks similar to the way it was conducted against Soleimani could come against the leaders of some major groups,” he says.
America might target the leaders of groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba, which are operating under Hashd al Shaabi despite being backed by Iran, he explains. Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba have been already designated as terrorist groups by the US.
“The US might target those groups’ depots and headquarters and launch assassinations against their leaders,” the analyst predicts.