American airstrikes against two Iranian-backed militias on Monday were just the latest skirmish in a conflict between the United States and Iran that is playing out on Iraqi soil.
Iran has relied on the militias to attack U.S. assets in Iraq, putting pressure on the United States while the two countries engage in indirect talks over their nuclear deal in Vienna. Monday’s airstrikes were the second time the Biden administration has responded militarily to the harassment.
But the conflict between its two powerful allies has put Iraq squarely in the middle. Unable to rein in the Iranian-backed forces or to stop the United States from retaliating, Iraq now faces the biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State group was marching toward Baghdad in 2014.
On Monday, it strongly protested the U.S. attack on its soil.
The Iraqi government described the strikes as a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.” Maj. Gen. Yahya Rasool, military spokesperson for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, urged de-escalation and said Iraq did not want to be turned into an “arena for settling accounts.”
The strikes hit facilities used by two militias that the Pentagon accused of involvement in recent drone attacks on American bases in Iraq. The Pentagon said Monday that the overnight airstrikes were meant to send a message while avoiding escalation.
But Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said the United States was disrupting the security of the region.
The strikes also revived questions about the future of about 2,500 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, where they serve as one of the country’s main security partners.
The government in Baghdad has been unable to stop attacks on its U.S. allies by the Iranian-backed militias, even though they are on the government payroll as the country tries to integrate them into its regular security forces.
The Pentagon said the strikes had hit both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Two of the targets were just across the border into Syria and the third was inside Iraq.
Al-Kadhimi, the prime minister, called an emergency meeting of security advisers to discuss the airstrikes. The Iraqi Cabinet called them “a flagrant violation” of international law and said Iraq was in the advanced stages of dialogue with the United States on what it said were the logistical details of removing U.S. combat forces from the country.
The United States and Iraq have been negotiating a new framework agreement governing security and other cooperation. Similar statements by the Iraqi government about an agreement to withdraw U.S. combat forces have been aimed at catering to Iranian-backed political parties and militias demanding their removal.
The American troops are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, which still relies on U.S. air power, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance to help fight remnants of the Islamic State group.
The U.S. strikes were the latest escalation in tensions over recent revelations that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq had increasingly been using small, explosive-laden drones in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases, including those used by the CIA and U.S. Special Operations units, according to American officials.
“There are clear signs of escalation,” said Farhad Alaaldin, head of the Iraq Advisory Council think tank, referring to recent attacks by the Iran-backed groups. “Really, the question for the U.S. is: ‘What does it take to say we have had enough, let’s go home?’ “
The two militias that were targeted in the strikes, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kata’ib Hezbollah, are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group, which formed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq in 2014. The forces mobilized following a fatwa, or religious edict, from Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, when the Islamic State group was nearing Baghdad in 2014.
Most but not all of the groups are Shiite Muslim, who are a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful ones are backed by Shiite Iran. In 2016, they were merged into the Iraqi government’s security force.
Despite that, the most powerful militias on the Iraqi government payroll are only nominally under control of Baghdad. The Popular Mobilization Forces are made up of more than 50 paramilitary groups with an estimated 160,000 fighters.
Iran over the past two years has decreased its financial support for proxy paramilitary groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon because of the effect of U.S. sanctions, lower oil prices and the pandemic. So the dozens of militia forces under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces have relied more on Iraqi government funding and moneymaking schemes that include oil smuggling and extortion at Iraqi borders and ports, according to security analysts and government officials.
American officials said they had not relied on Iraqi intelligence to identify and monitor the targets hit overnight, and had not consulted with the Iraqi government in advance. It was not known whether the United States notified Russia before the airstrikes on the Syrian side of the border, but both countries operate in the same airspace in Syria.
The group Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada said four of its fighters stationed along the border had been killed in the strikes.
“From now on, we will go to open war with the American occupation, the first action of which is targeting the enemy planes in beloved Iraq’s sky,” the group said in a statement.
Another little-known Iran-backed group, Guardians of Blood, said the first target would be American aircraft in Iraq’s Kurdish capital, Irbil.
The Popular Mobilization Forces denied Pentagon claims that weapons storehouses were targeted and said the airstrikes had targeted its fighters.
A front organization for Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination, vowed revenge and said it would continue to target U.S. forces.
“We will avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs against the perpetrators of this heinous crime and with God’s help, we will make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge,” the group said in a statement.
Later Monday, suspected Iranian-backed militias fired rockets at American forces in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson, Col. Wayne Marotto. Kurdish-Syrian media said the targets were U.S. troops near an oil field.
The U.S. airstrikes overnight Sunday were the second in the same area authorized by Biden since he came to power and the first since elections in Iran this month in which the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi become president.
Although bodies are normally buried the same day under Islamic tradition, the Popular Mobilization Forces said it would hold a public ceremony in Baghdad on Tuesday morning to transport the remains of those killed in the airstrike and to express condemnation of the attack.
The normally calm Kurdish-led region has also come under increased attack from fighters suspected to be from the Iranian-backed militias. The latest incident was Saturday when an explosive-laden drone landed in a village near Irbil, causing damage but no casualties.
The Kurdish region’s counterterrorism directorate on Saturday released photos of what it said were recovered drone pieces from an attack with an inscription referring to Abdu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi militia leader killed in Baghdad in a U.S. drone strike last year along with Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the country’s Quds Force.
Iran has said it has not yet avenged the killing of Soleimani, who helped direct wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and became the face of Iran’s efforts to build a regional bloc of Shiite power well beyond Iran’s borders.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.