How a Proxy War Could Blow Up Iraq—Again

With the country barely stabilizing after 16 years of conflict, war-weary Iraqis fear a new eruption of attacks by the U.S. and Israel against Iranian-backed forces inside the country.

Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces carry the coffin of their comrade Kazem Mohsen, known by his nom de guerre Abu Ali al-Dabi, during his funeral procession in Najaf, Iraq, on Aug. 26.
Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces carry the coffin of their comrade Kazem Mohsen, known by his nom de guerre Abu Ali al-Dabi, during his funeral procession in Najaf, Iraq, on Aug. 26. Haidar Hamdani/AFP

BAGHDAD—When a mysterious drone strike killed two members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on Sunday—and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted that his country might be involved—it was only the latest sign to war-weary Iraqis that they can’t get a break. Just as they’re getting on their feet, Iraq is becoming a battleground for foreigners once again.

The PMF is an amalgam of paramilitary brigades, many of which are linked to Iran, that helped to oust the Islamic State from Iraq in late 2017. Since then, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, under pressure from Washington, has sought to integrate the brigades into the Iraqi armed forces in hopes of finally stabilizing a country torn by 16 years of nearly nonstop conflict since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

But now Israel, in a sign that Netanyahu is dramatically escalating the conflict with Iran, appears willing to conduct operations in Iraq for the first time since the Israelis bombed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. And the United States, which under President Donald Trump has taken a much harder line against Iran, has signaled it is backing the broader Israeli campaign against Iranian-supported elements in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

By targeting one of the most powerful groups in Iraq, the strikes threaten the stability of the Iraqi government and make Iraq’s struggle to maintain neutrality between the United States and Iran dangerously tenuous. Iraqis know there is little they can do, but that doesn’t lessen their disgust and despair. 

“There has been a broader mood within the Iraqi public and sort of weariness of foreign interference, be it American or Iranian,” said Inna Rudolf, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. “I think it’s also important for U.S. officials to follow closely the Iraqi public discourse and not to underestimate this emphasis on Iraq’s sovereignty.” 

The bombings could undercut Mahdi’s government, especially if PMF brigades decide to strike back at U.S. or even Israeli targets. Mahdi cannot afford to antagonize the United States or Israel, but he relies on the PMF for his position in power. The group came second in the parliamentary elections and rallied the coalition that brought Mahdi to office. 

Politically, the situation becomes more unstable with each new attack on Iraqi territory. Five days before Sunday’s strike at Qaim near the Syrian border, strikes hit a PMF station near Balad air base north of Baghdad. The attack caused rockets stored on the station to be fired off into nearby villages, leading farmers to flee their homes. About a week before that, a PMF weapons depot mysteriously exploded in Baghdad, causing a massive fire that killed one person and injured around 29. In late July, a missile whistled down from the sky into the center of a PMF weapons depot, creating a spiraling vortex of smoke and killing two Iranian engineers. 

Last week, in the aftermath of the most recent attacks, Netanyahu gave several interviews coyly implying Israel was behind at least a few of the series of explosions. “We are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us,” he said in response to a question to whether Israel would mobilize against Iranian targets in Iraq from Israel’s Channel 9. “Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.”

U.S. officials speaking anonymously confirmed Israel’s responsibility in interviews with the New York Times on Aug. 22. 

The Iraq strikes occurred concurrently with strikes in Lebanon and Syria, also targeting Iranian-backed groups. While the escalation may seem sudden to outside observers, it comes after months of rising tensions between the United States and Iran, and the buildup to Israeli elections in which Netanyahu faces fierce opposition. “Benjamin Netanyahu has an interest in escalating the situation now as he’s going to elections,” said Harith Hasan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “He thinks that further polarization will help him in positioning himself as the one who defends Israel against its multiple enemies.” 

Within Iraq, the strikes hit at a knot of political tension that has been brewing for months as the country struggles to balance the competing interests of the United States and Iran, all while maintaining neutrality. The bombings in Iraq followed U.S. sanctions on several prominent PMF leaders and warnings from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the death of even of even one American soldier, of the around 5,000 stationed in Iraq, would prompt U.S. military action. The drone strikes have largely targeted weapons depots suspected to be storing Iranian-supplied weapons and controlled by PMF militias with close links to Iran. “I can’t imagine that the Israelis have done them [the strikes] without consulting the Americans,” Hasan said. 

For the past few months, Washington, fearful of Iran’s power inside Iraqi politics, has been mounting pressure on the Iraqi government to rein in the influence of the PMF and gain full control over the group. Mahdi issued a decree in the beginning of July declaring that the PMF had one month to integrate into the Iraqi armed forces. PMF leaders such as Falah al-Fayadh, the formal head of the PMF Commission, claim to welcome integration, but Hasan, the Iraq analyst, said the brigades are trying to retain their autonomy.

“The leaders of these factions prefer to act as hybrid actors, so they want to benefit from the relationship with the state … but at the same time they don’t want this integration to be strong to the extent that they will have be subjugated to the formal chain of command,” he said. 

The PMF came into existence in 2014 as a volunteer mix of largely Shiite militias rallied by Iraq’s most senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to fight the Islamic State. They played key roles in the liberation of Iraqi cities, and after the defeat of the Islamic State, the hodgepodge of paramilitary organizations pivoted to economic and political activities. 

“Very generally the Hashd [Arabic for the PMF] has gained quite a bit of influence and power, and I know there are concerns, particularly in the U.S., that the current, the new government in Iraq isn’t as strong to fight back against the Hashd,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House.  

Indeed, despite the deadline for Mahdi’s decree passing in the end of July, factions within the PMF refused to give up key security positions, and concerns remained that PMF militias would continue operations outside of formal chains of command. 

“The problem is that the Americans don’t think that the current Iraqi government has the ability, or even some Americans think they don’t have the willingness, to act on the Hashd. That is a major concern,” Mansour said.  

Hasan suspects that the United States will use the strikes to push for greater limits on the PMF’s power, “I assume the Americans will try to make an exchange, will try to say, okay, we will do our best with the Israelis, but you have to do your best with the PMF. If you are not able to control the PMF, we cannot control the Israelis when they perceive the actions and operations and deployment of the PMF as a threat to them,” he said.  

Mahdi’s public statements on the explosions have been carefully worded to condemn the attacks themselves without blaming a specific state or entity. His most recent statement, issued in response to the Sunday strike on Qaim, “condemned this flagrant and aggressive violation of Iraqi sovereignty” but shied away from directly assigning responsibility for the attack. 

In the aftermath of the attack at the Balad air base, the de facto leader of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, issued a statement squarely blaming the United States and Israel for the attack. “We announce that the first and last entity responsible for what happened are the American forces, and we will hold them responsible for whatever happens from today onwards,” he said. Statements castigating the United States for the strikes have also been issued by a number of Iran-linked PMF brigades: Kataib Hezbollah issued a statement giving Washington a “final warning,” and Harakat al-Nujaba condemned the United States for the attacks. 

Muhandis’s statement was quickly followed by a conflicting statement from the formal leader of the PMF, Fayadh. He said that investigations were ongoing into whom bore responsibility for the attack and that Muhandis does not represent the official view of the PMF. 

“It’s clear he [Muhandis] is pissed off about it [the bombings], because he issued that letter and basically came out and condemned the U.S. and other foreign countries,” Mansour said. “This was kind of a rare letter from him, because there’s been this understanding that he is the de facto leader, he does all the groundwork, and he leaves all the foreign relations to the formal government—that is, to Falah al-Fayadh.

Hashd will put a lot of pressure on all of these leaders to stop these strikes, and if they are unable, then the Hashd will change or will push to change powers, or may even in a worst-case scenario begin their own attacks,” he added.

But so far Mahdi has been unable to effectively curb the attacks. Following the explosion of the weapons depot in Baghdad, Mahdi limited the U.S. coalition’s use of airspace, but merely a week later the weapons depot neighboring the Balad air base was bombed, and a few days after that the two militiamen were killed in Qaim.

Many in Iraq criticize both Washington and Tehran for their interference in Iraqi affairs. But some Iraqis also criticize the PMF’s connections to Iran. But “if the Americans continue to hit the Hashd, Iraqis, even those Iraqis who have begun to be a bit critical of the Hashd, may turn around and say, ‘Why are the Americans attacking Iraq?’” Mansour said. 

The longer the attacks continue, the less feasible it will be for Mahdi to remain neutral without appearing weak, and the harder it will be for him to avoid condemning Israel without losing face. Following the drone strikes on the border, even the parliamentary bloc representing the PMF, the Fatah Alliance, upped its rhetoric holding the United States responsible for the attack and calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.  

“We need to wait and see if these attacks will continue and what are the next targets, because if there will be more attacks, this will be more embarrassing to the Iraqi government,” said Hasan, the Carnegie analyst. “They cannot continue to be silent.”

But Hasan also does not believe anyone truly wants these skirmishes to spiral into all-out war. “Neither the Americans or the Iranians are interested in major war at this time. They don’t want to trigger a war,” he said. “So I don’t think the rhetoric will be translated into a major action inside of Iraq. We have to wait and see.” 

Mansour, the Chatham House researcher, warned that these tactics smack of past U.S. attempts to suppress local armed groups through force, and that those attempts rarely have gone well, in Iraq and elsewhere.

“I don’t think the Americans know what they’re doing,” he said.

 Twitter: @PMagid