The Riddle of Baghdad

Jerusalem Post, 13/12

Last week, five rockets were fired at the Ayn al-Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar Province.  The base is a facility housing US troops.  Ayn al-Asad is something of a symbol for the 5,000 strong US presence in Iraq.  President Trump visited the base last year, spending the day after Christmas with troops stationed there.  Vice President Mike Pence was also there in late November, for Thanksgiving.

Two days  later, Katyusha rockets were fired at the Balad airbase, 70 kilometers north of Baghdad.  Again, this is a base where US forces and contractors are stationed.

There were no casualties in either attack. They were the latest in a string of similar incidents which have taken place on US facilities in Iraq since the beginning of the year. These attacks have a number of things in common, other than that they are directed at US personnel and facilities: they appear to be intended for now to send a message rather than to cause injuries or fatalities among US troops.

They are also notable in that no force or organization has taken responsibility for them.

The attacks are taking place in the context of continued unrest and security chaos in Iraq.  Unlike in Iran, the demonstrations and protests in Iraq have not been crushed as yet by the actions of the security forces.  Unlike in Lebanon, the number of participants have not declined.  Rather, the protests in Baghdad and elsewhere are continuing at white heat.  The resignation last week of Prime Minister Adel Abd al Mahdi has not stemmed the energy of the protestors who are demanding the resignation of the entire government, new elections and the overhaul of the country’s political system.

The efforts by the authorities to crush the protests are also intensifying.  On December 8, over 25 people were killed and more than 130 wounded when gunmen opened fire on demonstrators near the main protest camp  at Tahrir Square in Baghdad.

More than 400 Iraqis have been killed and thousands more wounded since the protests began in early October.  On Sunday, the violence erupted when armed men on pick up trucks attacked a building near the Sinak bridge occupied by the protestors.  The building was torched and the attackers opened fire with live ammunition as the demonstrators fled the building.

The attack came a day after a series of mysterious stabbings left a number of protestors in Tahrir Square seriously injured.

Like the attacks on Ayn al-Asad and the other US bases, the killings of the demonstrators have been claimed by no organization. The Iraqi authorities in official statements on these incidents persist in a somewhat surreal claim that the killings are being committed by an unknown ‘third force’ unconnected to the authorities.

An (Arabic language) statement by Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesman of the ISF’s Joint Operations Command, issued shortly after the beginning of the demonstrations and quoted in a recent article in Janes Intelligence Review, read that ‘there are no orders to use violence against demonstrators.  The security forces are protecting demonstrators and property from ‘mundisun’, who are trying to destroy the country.’  On the same day, Iraqi Ministry of Defense Spokesman Tahseen al-Khafaji stated that ‘Mundisun have opened fire on demonstrators and Iraqi security forces.’

Who or what is a ‘Mundis’?  This Arabic term has no precise translation but is usually used to mean a ‘provocateur.’  Its use is associated with authoritarian regimes who seek to divert attention from their own repression by use of conspiracy theories.  As such, it is a term of ridicule for many reform minded people in the Arab world.

So if the aforementioned, mysterious ‘mundisun’ don’t really exist, who is killing demonstrators in Baghdad, and who is firing rockets at US bases?  Might the two sets of perpetrators be connected, and what explains the reticence of both the Iraqi authorities and the US to identify those responsible?

Actually, the answer is very clear. The riddle is why it has taken so long for the facts to be acknowledged in both Baghdad and Washington.

The evidence suggests that in both cases, the perpetrators are the Iran-backed Shia militias who today constitute the strongest and most potent political and paramilitary force in the country.  With regard to the attacks on US bases, the indications have been plain throughout the year that with the IS threat now set back, the Shia militias have been gearing up to seek to expel the US presence from Iraq.

As far back as  February 2nd, Iraqi security forces found and defused three missiles that had been set on a timer to be launched at the al-Asad base. The missiles were defused fifteen minutes before they were set to launch.

On February 4th, Ja’afar Husseini, spokesman of Ktaeb Hizballah, one of the most powerful of the Shia militias, warned that clashes between the militias and the US ‘may start at any moment.’  This was the second such warning issued by the movement. ‘There is no stable Iraq with the presence of the Americans,’ Husseini declared.

 

His words were echoed by Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, who similarly declared that Iraq’s security forces and ‘strong society’ could easily expel the  US service members currently deployed in Iraq.

 

It now appears that the tempo of attacks has continued and increased, while failing to attract wide media attention. According to a report in Bloomberg on December 7, no less than eight separate attacks have taken place on Iraqi  facilities hosting US troops in the last five weeks.

The sophistication of the attacks, the munitions used, and the target all point to the Iran-backed militias. US patience is evidently now growing thin. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, speaking at a briefing in Washington on December 6, said with regard to the Balad and al-Asad attacks that ‘if past is prologue, I’d say there’s a good chance it was Iran that’s behind it.’  The US Treasury Department has now blacklisted Qais and Laith al-Khazali, leaders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Hussein al-Lami, security chief for the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Similarly, with regard to the actions against the demonstrators, there has been ample testimony from the very start that the gunmen firing at demonstrators were from the militias, and not some mythical ‘third force.’

As one demonstrator told Iraqi reporter Kareem Botane as early as October 6, just five days after the protests began:  ‘the government has changed its tactics, withdrawing its forces and bringing in other forces that belong to certain militias of the PMU – Khorasani and al-Nujaba (pro-Iranian PMU-affiliated militias).  According to information I got from emergency forces and police, they started with 300 people and these were deployed at the top of buildings – they were all snipers.’

So if its been clear from the start that the Iran-backed militias were  almost certainly responsible both for attacks on bases hosting US troops, and for the slaughter of demonstrators, what is the reason for the reticence of both Iraqi and (until recently) US officials?

The answer is that once the violent activities of a particular party are identified, logic holds that there may need to be a response.  But the Iraqi political class is itself either on the side of the Iran-backed militias, or terrified of risking renewed civil war by confronting them.  The US, meanwhile,  has been reluctant to accept the increasingly unavoidable fact that its 2003 invasion of Iraq has birthed a pro-Iranian Shia ascendancy in the country which is now trying to expel the remaining US forces.  When reality is too bitter and frightening to confront, political classes, like individuals, sometimes take shelter in denial. That, it appears, is the answer to the riddle of Baghdad.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is a the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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