As we march headlong into a new Middle East conflict, it is prudent to reflect on what has come before and how we found ourselves seemingly inevitably, on this path – a path cut with our own blade.
On Friday, January 3rd, the US government decided to ring in the new year with bombs bursting on a highway near Baghdad airport. Those bursting bombs targeted the Iranian General and commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, a man of dubious reputation in the West; but a man of significant influence held in high esteem throughout the Shi’ite Middle East. The blast also killed the head of the Iraqi militia blamed for the attack on a US base in Iraq on December 27th, as well as the entourages of both of these men.
The targeted killing of these two commanders was executed in retaliation for the assault on the US Embassy in Iraq, during which hundreds of protesters succeeded in painting graffiti on the Embassy walls and setting a fire in a reception area. The protests at the Embassy were, themselves, a response to a US airstrike on five Kata’Ib Hizbollah encampments along the Iraq-Syria border, on December 29th, which killed 25 and injured another 55 militiamen. Those airstrikes were launched in response to the December 27th rocket attack which struck the US base in Kirkuk 300 miles away, resulting in the death of a US contractor and injuries to two US soldiers and two Iraqi soldiers and for which the militia group was blamed.
Prior to that, the chain of events – the call and response of military actions between Iran and the US – gets murkier. Was it the harsh sanctions (themselves an act of war) imposed by the US government on Iran? Was it the incessant threats of military action by the US? Was it the US intelligence support provided to Israel in their drone war against Shi’a militias in Iraq? Was it the US support for the Saudi-led genocide campaign in Yemen against the Houthis? It’s hard to say. Any one of these things could elicit a violent response against the US occupation in Iraq.
We could trace back to the 1953 coup coordinated by US and British intelligence, overthrowing the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh and installing Mohammed Reza Shah and his quarter-century of brutal dictatorship. President Trump is calling back to the end of that era in his threats to strike 52 sites in Iran "representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago." However, I think a better place to start the history of the current conflict is 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal – a superfluous deal, since Iran is also a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
President Donald Trump renounced the deal declaring that Iran was not adhering to the terms. The statement was made without evidence and, in fact, contrary to the evidence, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors maintained that Iran was keeping the terms of the deal. Iran continued within the framework of the deal for about a year, but with other signatories unable to maintain their responsibilities, mostly as a result of US pressure, Iran has exceeded the limitations imposed by the JCPOA, which it is entitled to do under the JCPOA. (Paragraphs #26 and #37 of the agreement cite re-imposition of sanctions against Iran as "grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.") There is still no evidence, despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s ravings, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions extend beyond civilian power generation.
The US withdrawal from the JCPOA, however, was followed by immediate imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iran (part of the reason Iran exceeded the storage limitations of the JCPOA, being unable to export excess materials). These sanctions have destroyed the Iranian economy, but they have not resulted in capitulation by the Iranian government – though, the capitulation sought by the US is unclear. There were a few tit-for-tat international incidents: an Iranian tanker was captured and held at the Straits of Gibraltar, a British tanker was captured and held at the Straits of Hormuz. There were a couple of attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf belonging to US allies; and there were drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, none of which have been definitively tied to Iranian action.
This escalation could have occurred six months ago, when Iran shot down a US surveillance drone which may or may not have crossed into Iranian airspace. At that time, though, President Trump had the restraint to pull back from a planned airstrike that was projected to kill 150 Iranians, because that response was "not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone."
Then, on December 27th, a rocket landed on a US base in Kirkuk in northeast Iraq, injuring two US servicemen, two Iraqi servicemen and killing a US contractor. Kata’Ib Hizbollah was blamed for the attack, though there has been no evidence presented for this conclusion. The US government identifies Kata’Ib Hizbollah as an Iran-backed militia, which at this point only really means that they are a Shi’a militia group, since the "Iran-backed" label is applied to any Shi’a militia group in the region. This militia group is a member of the official security forces of Iraq, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), somewhat analogous to the National Guard in the US.
It’s also important to remember that the US fought the second Iraq War against the Sunni government in a majority Shi’ite country. Al-Qaeda and the Ba’athist regime were both Sunni, and the result of the US intervention after 9/11 was to hand control of the Iraqi government to the Iran-aligned Da’wa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly SCIRI). The Redirection was triggered by the recognition that the US had just fought a war for Iran in Iraq. Rather than fight the same war in Iraq, but on the other side this time, the US military was focused on toppling Bashir al-Assad in Iran-allied Syria. There, US support for the al Nusra Front, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, resulted in the formation of ISIS.
The US military was invited back into Iraq in 2014 to fight against ISIS, and US forces have been allied with these same Iraqi Shi’a militia groups, including groups backed by Iran, to defeat the Sunni jihadists. Nevertheless, the US responded on December 29th by launching airstrikes against five Kata’Ib Hizbollah facilities near Iraq’s western border with Syria. The airstrikes resulted in the deaths of 25 Iraqi servicemen and injuries to another 55. These attacks were a gross violation of Iraqi sovereignty with the US military attacking Iraqi security forces in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said, "Only Iraqi authorities are entitled to deal with these practices."
The Iraqi people have been engaged in protests against the Iranian influence in their government for months, but the US strikes succeeded in refocusing their attention on the other major foreign influence on Iraqi politics. Protesters gathered at the US Embassy in Baghdad chanting, "Down with America!" or "Death to America!" While the Embassy was never really in danger, the protesters breached the outer wall and set alight a reception area before US soldiers and Iraqi security forces repelled the protests.
The US government blamed Iran for the protests at the Embassy, with Trump tweeting, "Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq. To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!" Many of these same people have been involved with the pro-democracy protests against the Iraqi government that resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdel Mahdi a couple of weeks ago, when protesters burned the Iranian Consulate.
President Trump has missed the point. The Iraqi people want self-government. They don’t want Iran to control their government any more or less than they want the US to control their government. If the last several months of protests succeeded in removing Iranian influence, they would have shifted their focus to the US. If the current protests succeed in eliminating US influence, they will shift their focus back to Iran. The Iraqi people want to govern themselves. That being said, Iraqis are unlikely to choose US influence over Iranian influence, because of their cultural and religious kinship with the Persians.
In retaliation for the protests at the US Embassy or for the death of the US contractor, the US assassinated the Iranian General, Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iraq’s PMUs, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and PMU Media Chief, Mohammed Reda al-Jabri on January 3rd. The fallout from these assassinations began almost immediately with the Iraqi Parliament voting on January 5th to eject the US military, and Iran declaring the US military as a terrorist group, as the US had done to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in April. President Trump threatened sanctions on Iraq if they try to expel US troops, an action that will surely unite the people of both countries against US forces.
The assassination of Soleimani on Iraqi soil, not to mention the two Iraqi PMU officers (representing a government the US is purportedly trying to protect), is another example of a glaring disregard for Iraqi sovereignty, made more severe due to the importance of hospitality to Islam. Soleimani was a guest of the Iraqi government and entitled to their protection. What of the reports that Soleimani was responsible for hundreds of American deaths? Factually untrue. Again, any American death that can be linked to a Shi’ite is blamed on Iran; but even if true, what will the US do? Thousands of American deaths were caused by Sunni militiamen. Would we rather ally ourselves with al-Qaeda and their descendants?
The drone strike is also a clear act of war, and potentially a twofer, escalating tensions between US forces and the people of both Iraq and Iran. President Trump launched this attack without consulting or notifying the US Congress, who has the sole power of declaring war. You can ignore the whining of the Representatives, as they’ve shown no interest in accepting their Constitutional duty for decades. Nonetheless, the separation of war powers to the Executive to lead and the Congress (the people’s house) to declare is important to our limited government republic. This is a crucial difference between a president and a king.
President Trump said he took these actions to prevent a war, rather than start one. I’m not sure how dropping a bomb on several important figures and moving thousands of troops into a neighboring country are intended to send the message that you want no further violence. It’s impossible to know where this escalation will end. Iran launched missiles at two bases housing US troops in Iraq in the early hours of January 8th. They were kind enough to notify the US before the attacks, and they appear to have caused no casualties. President Trump seems to have accepted this as the final blow in the current cycle of revenge. However, the Iranians will certainly continue to press for US troops to leave the region. As Iran and potentially Iraq attempt to expel US forces from the region, what will the US reaction be?
The appropriate reaction would be to politely thank them and withdraw, though that seems unlikely. US intervention was instrumental in creating the current mess; and all evidence to the contrary, our government still believes that US intervention is the only way to solve it. The US has been warring in Iraq in one form or another since 1991. What more do we expect to accomplish?
Michael Reeves hosts The Liberty Mic podcast with his friend Liberty Larry; and his occasional scribbles, along with their podcasts, can be found at thelibertymic.com, where they promote Personal Liberty, Free Enterprise and Self-Government.