Iran is accused of using its paramilitary proxy group to move missiles in turmoil-hit Iraq, which is caught in a tug of war between Iran and the US.
Tehran has discreetly built an arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq, taking advantage of the ongoing political turmoil in the country, the New York Times reported on Thursday, quoting the US intelligence and military officials.
It's been over two months since Iraqis in Baghdad and the Shia-majority south have been protesting against a lack of basic services, jobs and years-long corruption that they blame on the government as well as holding Iran responsible for undermining the country's progress.
Widening Iranian influence in Iraq
The news comes as the latest of Tehran’s efforts to assert power in Iraq -- a potential sign that Tehran has no intention of stepping back even after 400 Iraqis were gunned down in protests. The protesters hold the Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias responsible for the bloodbath.
According to the New York Times report, Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was used by Tehran to move and hide missiles in Iraq. The armed group has played a key role in helping Iran increase its influence in Iraq.
The Iranian influence in the military grew especially with the PMF playing a key role in defeating Daesh in Iraq. The militia was gradually integrated with Iraq's paramilitary forces, a move widely seen as a boost to Tehran's control over Baghdad.
The PMF also made a political foray with its commander Hadi al Ameri running as a candidate as the leader of Fatah alliance. In what was dubbed 'a compromise' it took two major political fronts, Islah and Bina, five months to form a government.
Many Iraqis think Iran’s involvement in the country's inner workings went too far. Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has sworn in as prime minister only a year ago, resigned after the protesters entered the Iranian consulate and burnt down the entire building.
Iraqis celebrated the PM’s exit as a step towards an independent parliament, but the process of choosing a new PM is a difficult one. The Iran-backed Fatah alliance claims the right to choose the new PM, while Sairoon, headed by the populist cleric Muqtada al Sadr, says his party has the right to do so.
Iraqis say they wouldn’t welcome a new PM close to the country’s political elite. But reports say Qasim Sulaimani, Major General of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has attended meetings over the next PM, pushing his own favourite.
The US slammed Sulaimani for interfering in the process.
A further US-Iran strain in relations over Iraq may follow
Iraq has become a centre of a tug of war between Baghdad’s two allies, Washington and Tehran. While the two sides, known archrivals, are pursuing their own interests, the Iraqi government is struggling to find its feet and reconstruct the post-war country.
When the US restored its sanctions against Iran last year in May, and asked Iraq to abide by them, Iraq found itself between a rock and a hard place.
Iraqi President Barham Salih stated his discomfort from the escalation, saying the sanctions were hurting the entire region, not only Iran. He urged the US to de-escalate.
"We cannot afford our country to be dragged into a conflict," he said.
Meanwhile, the US has sent 14,000 additional troops to the region since May, the month when the US sanctions on Iran made a brutal comeback. For the US, the aim was to counter threats such as attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf which Washington previously blamed on Iran.