Dozens of attacks on US military facilities by Iran-backed factions in Iraq over the past two months as the Israel-Hamas war has raged have forced Baghdad into a balancing act that’s becoming more difficult by the day.
A rocket attack on the sprawling US Embassy in Baghdad marked a further escalation as Iraqi officials scrambled to contain the ripple effects of the latest Middle East war.
Iran holds considerable sway in Iraq and a coalition of Iran-backed groups brought Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to power in October last year. At the same time, there are some 2000 US troops in Iraq under an agreement with Baghdad, mainly to counter the militant Islamic State group.
Baghdad also relies heavily on Washington’s sanctions waivers to buy electricity from Iran, and since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq’s foreign currency reserves have been housed at the US Federal Reserve, giving the Americans significant control over Iraq’s supply of dollars.
Al-Sudani’s predecessors also had to walk a delicate line between Tehran and Washington, but the Israel-Hamas war has considerably upped the stakes.
Since the war erupted on October 7, at least 92 attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria have been claimed by an umbrella group of Iran-backed Iraqi militants dubbed the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. The militants say their attacks are in retaliation for Washington’s backing of Israel and its military presence in Iraq and Syria.
Al-Sudani has condemned the attacks and US counter-strikes as a violation of his country’s sovereignty. He has also ordered authorities to pursue militants involved in the attacks, most of which caused no injuries and only minor damage. His office declined further comment.
Washington has sent messages that its patience is wearing thin.
After the embassy attack, the Pentagon said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin “made clear [to al-Sudani] that attacks against US forces must stop”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told al-Sudani that Washington expects Iraqi officials to take more action to prevent such attacks, and believes they have the capability to do so, a US official said.
During a recent trip to the region, CIA Director William Burns warned al-Sudani of “harsh consequences” if Iraq doesn’t act to stop the attacks, an Iraqi official said.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations.
In a call with the Iraqi premier this month, Blinken said Americans would take matters into their own hands, arguing that Baghdad had not done enough to pursue the perpetrators, according to two Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two days later, a US strike on a drone launch site near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk killed five militants.
The US and much of the international community have scrambled to prevent the war in the besieged Gaza Strip from expanding across the region.
Analyst Renad Mansour said he believed Iran was making sure the attacks remained below a threshold that would provoke a major US response.
“Both Iran and Iraq have maintained thus far a clear line that, at the moment, Iraq cannot turn into a playground that could destabilise the Sudani government,” said Mansour, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank.
He said that was partially due to Iraq’s role of passing messages between Washington and Tehran.
Sometimes the messenger is al-Sudani.
In early November, Blinken met with al-Sudani in Baghdad a day before the Iraqi prime minister was set to visit Tehran. Al-Sudani had won a specific promise from the militias that no attacks would be launched during Blinken’s visit, according to an Iraqi official and a member of the Kataib Hezbollah militia. Following the visit, al-Sudani carried a message from Blinken to Iran to restrain the militias.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
A week after the Iraqi premier’s diplomatic efforts, the United States extended Iraq’s sanctions waiver by four months to purchase Iranian electricity. Iran hawks in Washington criticised the move, saying it would shore up revenue for Tehran while its proxies are at war with Israel.
Mansour says Washington has used the sanctions waiver as “one of its cards” in economy-centred efforts to pressure Iran and Iraq.
Unlike Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, seen as Iran’s most powerful proxy in the region, Iraq’s militias have so far played only a limited role in the conflict.
For now, only a small number of militiamen from Iraq are in southern Lebanon, near Israel’s northern border, said the official from the Kataib Hezbollah group. He said the Iraqis were working on “battle management” alongside Hezbollah and representatives of Hamas, the militant group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years and is now battling Israel.
He said Iran-backed groups in Iraq did not want the conflict to spread across the region, but were prepared to respond with force to any attacks.
Should Iran and allies choose to escalate, al-Sudani’s government will probably be unable to rein them in or prevent consequences on Iraqi soil, said Iyad al-Anbar, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
“And this is why all al-Sudani has been able to do is try to bring some calm through statements,” al-Anbar said.