US vows to face threats by Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The US administration called on Iraqi officials to take immediate action to hold the perpetrators accountable following an attack on Sunday that targeted US forces in Baghdad.

The US State Department said on Tuesday that it was 'outraged' by the attack, which killed three Iraqi children and two women from the same family after a rocket aimed at Baghdad airport – where US troops are stationed – hit their home.

The US has vowed to respond to threats against American interests in Iraq and is drafting sanctions targeting Iran-backed militias if attacks against US targets in the country continue.

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Iraqi leadership that the country would close down its embassy in Baghdad and demanded decisive actions against the armed groups responsible.

“The United States will not tolerate threats to our men and women serving abroad and we will not hesitate to take any action we deem necessary to keep our personnel safe,” the State Department said in a statement emailed to The National late on Monday.

It refused to comment on Mr Pompeo’s calls to the Iraqis, but said: “We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remain the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq.”

Martin Huth, the EU ambassador to Iraq, condemned the latest attacks, saying "criminal terrorist attacks need to stop, perpetrators held accountable," in a tweet on Tuesday.

Rocket and bomb attacks have become an almost daily routine against the US Embassy – a sprawling compound in the heavily fortified Green Zone – as well as military bases hosting US troops and logistics convoys destined for the US-led International Coalition forces.

At least nine previously unknown Shiite groups, believed to be linked to major Shiite militias, have claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Lawmaker Dhafir Al Ani, who sits on the parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee said “punishing measures” are likely to follow any US Embassy closure.

“Washington has prepared a list of 40 names of militia leaders who will be considered targets and will face sanctions,” Mr Al Ani told The National.

The sanctions will also be imposed on the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-sponsored umbrella group for paramilitary groups, including some Iran-backed militias, targeting their arms and financing, Mr Al Ani said, adding that the US is likely treat the Iraqi government as it has Tehran.

He confirmed that 12 European embassies informed the government that they will take the same step.

“The government has tried to assure the American side, but facts on the ground are different and trust is almost nonexistent,” he said.

Events started to unfold dramatically late last year when the US accused Iran of masterminding missile attacks against US targets through Iraqi proxies.

Tensions soared in late December when the US accused the Kataib Hezbollah militia of attacking a military base north of Baghdad, killing one US contractor and wounding several US service members along with Iraqi personnel.

A day later, the US forces conducted air strikes against five Kataib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 fighters and wounding dozens. During the funeral procession for the slain fighters, angry mourners, including some in military fatigues, broke into Baghdad’s Green Zone, and torched a reception building at the US Embassy.

On January 3, the US responded with a brazen drone air strike that killed Iran’s top military commander General Qassim Soleimani after he landed at Baghdad airport, along with Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and several others.

A few days later, Iraq’s Shiite political parties pushed for a decision inside parliament to expel US troops from Iraq without endorsement from Sunnis and Kurds.

Iran retaliated by firing nearly two dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases hosting American troops. Since then, Iran and its allies have called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Damaged military vehicles in the aftermath of US air strikes at a militarised zone in the Jurf Al Sakhr area in Iraq's Babylon province controlled by Kataib Hezbollah. AFP

US air strikes targeting pro-Iranian military factions in Iraq killed one civilian and five security personnel early on March 13, the Iraqi military said. AFP

The Pentagon said the strikes were in retaliation for rocket fire against an Iraqi base the night of March 12 that killed one British and two US military personnel in the deadliest such attack in years. AFP

An impact crater in the aftermath of US military air strikes at a militarized zone in the Jurf Al Sakhr area in Iraq's Babylon province. AFP

A member of the Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitaries injured in an area targeted by US military air strikes, receives treatment while lying on a bed at Hilla General Teaching Hospital in Iraq's central city of Hilla on March 13, 2020. AFP

An ambulance that transported members of the Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitaries, injured in an area targeted by US military air strikes, arrives at Hilla General Teaching Hospital. AFP

This annotated image provided by the US Department of Defense showing aerial images of sites targeted in airstrikes on Friday, March 13, 2020. US Department of Defense via AP

This annotated image provided by the US Department of Defense showing aerial images of sites targeted in airstrikes on Friday, March 13, 2020. US Department of Defense via AP

Iraqi army soldiers inspect the destruction at an airport complex under construction in Karbala. AP

Marine Corps Gen Kenneth F McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, talks to journalists about the military response to rocket attacks that killed two US and one UK service members in Iraq. Getty Images via AFP

Marine Corps Gen Kenneth F McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, talks to journalists about the military response to rocket attacks that killed two US and one UK service members in Iraq. Getty Images via AFP

“The presence of the American troops on Iraqi soil is illegal and illegitimate,” the spokesman of Kataib Hezbollah, Mohammed Mohie told The National. “It challenges the parliament decision and threatens to create crises,” Mr Mohie added.

He called the US warning “psychological warfare” aimed at increasing pressure on the government to take action against the PMF.

“The US doesn’t want stumbling blocks in Iraq so that it can carry on with its schemes,” he continued. “These stumbling blocks are the resistance factions.”

He suggests withdrawing all US troops and reconsidering the embassy size in order to redraw the relations between the two countries to reflect mutual interests.

Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq is separate from the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

Dr Munqith Dagher, the MENA director and a board member of Gallup International, believes the US is serious with its warnings this time.

“The current Iraqi government and the previous one received many warnings before and at the same time Iraqis have given promises and nothing has happened,” Mr Dagher said.

He sees that there are two different perspectives inside Iran between “Iran the state and Iran the revolution.”

The first, he said, doesn’t want things to reach this limit in Iraq and wants Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi to play a role in mitigating tension with the US, while the latter believes that there is an opportunity to provoke Donald to make him lose the presidential vote in November.

Updated: September 29, 2020 07:05 PM

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