Why did the United States become the focus of the wrath of the Iraqis?
For months, furious protests have plagued Iraq, fueled by frustration at a dysfunctional economy, corruption and the dominant influence of a foreign power: Iran.
Then, a rocket attack killed an American contractor in Iraq, US air strikes struck an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, and Iraqi anger turned to the United States, which culminated in a raid on its Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday.
The airstrikes and the raid of the embassy led the United States to its most serious crisis in the country in years, and plunged it further into volatile problems affecting Iraq and its neighboring Iran.
Complicated at best, relations between Iraq, Iran and the United States are now even more tense.
- What happened in the last days?
On Friday, more than 30 rockets were fired at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, killing an American civilian contractor and injuring four US military officers and two Iraqis. The United States accused an Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, of carrying out the attack. A militia spokesman denied his participation. President
Donald TrumpHe blamed Iran for the attack and wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that Iran killed an American contractor and wounded many. The US military launched air strikes against the militia over the weekend, killing 24 members in what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called a decisive response. He said the United States will not tolerate the Islamic Republic of Iran taking measures that endanger American men and women. The United States and Iran have long disagreed over the influence in Iraq, Iran's nuclear program and other problems, and tensions have skyrocketed under the Trump administration, which withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement and imposed punitive sanctions. to Tehran. But US airstrikes occurred at a particularly combustible moment in Iraq, where anger over foreign interference was already intensifying. The country's main Shiite cleric, Grand AyatollahAli al-Husseini al-Sistani warned that Iraq should not become a field for resolving regional and international scores, and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called the airstrikes a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. On Tuesday, protesters stormed the vast complex of the United States Embassy in Baghdad. They did not enter the main embassy buildings, and eventually joined thousands of people nearby, many of them members of combat groups technically supervised by the Iraqi army, and many singing Death to America. Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the theft and added that they will be held fully responsible. Many of the protesters who broke into the complex were members of Kataib. Hezbollahand other militias backed by Iran. While Iran remains deeply influential in Iraq, it has also been a recent target of anger and sometimes violence by Iraqi protesters.
- Why has Iraq been so volatile recently?
In October, huge, sometimes violent protests began to emerge throughout Iraq, when people angry at unemployment, corruption and chaotic public services took to the streets. For 12 weeks, the government sought a solution, promising reforms and vigorous measures. More than 500 people died and 19,000 were injured in the riots, according to the UN special envoy to Iraq. The brutal government response hardened the resolution of the protesters, and the protests gradually expanded to include complaints about Iran's widespread influence on the Iraqi government. (An Iranian general, Major General Qasem Soleimani, had negotiated the agreement created by the current government.) Many protesters link Iranian influence with corruption in the government and among Shiite militias. In November, protesters set fire to the Iranian Consulate in the southern city of Najaf, and for weeks they camped in front of the Green Zone of Baghdad, the seat of Parliament and the prime minister. At the end of the month, Abdul-Mahdi said he would resign. The Iraqi government has been in limbo since then, unable to choose its successor.
- How does Iran get involved in Iraqi militias?
After years of competing with the United States for influence over Iraq, Iran has emerged as an aggressive and powerful force in Iraqi life. Iran wields powerful influence in the government, business and religion. Iranian-linked parties have gained significant strength in Parliament, especially since the American military withdrawal in 2009. And when the Islamic State invaded Iraq in 2014, Iran helped form Shiite militias to fight it, giving it leverage in Iraq’s security. As the militias and the United States — effectively fighting on the same side — drove the Islamic State out of territory it controlled in Iraq, the militias gained influence. They control powerful factions in Parliament and the military, and some have turned into mafia-like groups that use extortion rackets to profit from Iraqis. Some militias have attacked Iraqi bases where Americans are stationed, too. The populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the United States and Iran to leave Iraq, urged the militias to stop "irresponsible actions." The group accused in Friday’s rocket attack, Kataib Hezbollah , has close ties to Iran, but many Iraqis consider it a primarily Iraqi force. It is separate from the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, though both groups have Iran’s backing and oppose the United States. The State Department has designated both groups as terrorist organizations. Kataib Hezbollah promised "retaliation" for the airstrikes, without providing details. Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the United States "must accept full responsibility for the consequences of this illegal action."
- What is the presence of the United States in Iraq?
The United States has about 5,200 soldiers in Iraq and a fluctuating number of civilian contractors. Most of the soldiers are stationed at a base northwest of Baghdad and at a base in the north controlled by the Kurds. The embassy complex in Baghdad opened in 2009 and, with 104 acres, is almost as large as the Vatican City. The complex and the US Consulate in Irbil, in northern Iraq, have a combined staff of 486 people, mostly in Baghdad. After the storm on Tuesday, the Pentagon sent an additional 120 marines to Baghdad. The US presence in Iraq has declined sharply since its height during and immediately after the Iraq War. There were almost 16,000 people in the embassy complex in 2012 and 170,000 troops in Iraq in 2007. Amid growing tensions with Iran this year, the State Department ordered some diplomats to leave the embassy.
- What is happening in Iran?
Adding to the regional turmoil, Iran has also been reckoning with its worst unrest in decades. These protests began in November with a sudden increase in gasoline prices, and grew into demonstrations against Iran’s leaders and how they have handled American sanctions, a staggering economy and anger from neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon. Thousands of people demonstrated, many from cities with large low-income and working-class populations, but Iran’s security forces crushed the protest, killing up to 450 people, according to human rights groups. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, justified the crackdown by calling the protests a plot by Iran’s enemies at home and abroad.