Alleged Israeli strikes in Iraq unlikely to threaten US presence, experts say

Israel’s reported actions against pro-Iranian militias in the Arab state have exposed internal US differences, underline delicate balancing act required by all sides

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

In this photo from August 12, 2019, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)
In this photo from August 12, 2019, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)

For nearly a month after a mysterious July 19 airstrike on an Iranian weapons depot near Baghdad, the US, which deploys over 5,000 troops in Iraq, remained relatively mum on the matter, offering nothing beyond a denial of responsibility.

But late last week Washington broke its silence, with officials telling various media outlets that Israel had been behind a number of recent attacks on munition storehouses in Iraq, including the initial July strike that killed two Iranian commanders.

The officials’ outing of Israel appeared tied to some frustration with Jerusalem’s alleged actions. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior official told The New York Times that Israel was pushing the envelope with the strikes and that such attacks could lead to the US being kicked out of Iraq. American soldiers have been stationed throughout the country since 2014 thanks to an invitation from the local government to help battle the Islamic State.

But Israeli and American analysts who spoke to The Times of Israel downplayed concerns that the strikes were jeopardizing ongoing US presence in Iraq, where the government is cognizant of the critical role Washington plays.

Regional experts said the anonymous comments were more indicative of an internal debate between the military officials who directly face the repercussions of such strikes, and Iran hawks in the Trump administration — who are more supportive of an aggressive policy to combat Tehran’s regional influence.

Iraq is not Syria — where Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian targets since 2011. In Iraq, US troops can quickly become targets of the Shiite militias hit in the alleged Israeli strikes. If that happens and the Trump administration decides to pull its troops from Iraq, the move would create a vacuum likely to be filled by forces less concerned with Israeli interests.

Nevertheless, analysts believed such an eventuality was not imminent, and said cooler heads in the US, Israel and Iraq were more likely to prevail.

This photo released by Popular Mobilization Forces shows shows the aftermath of a drone attack near Qaim border crossing with Syria, in Anbar province, Iraq, August 25, 2019. (Popular Mobilization Forces via AP)

A fast-escalating affair

Two months prior to the first alleged Israeli strike, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made an unscheduled May 7 visit to Baghdad where he warned that if Iraq did not reign in the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, the US would be forced to respond.

After another visit from Pompeo in early July, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi place the Iranian-backed militias — most notably among them the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces — under the official command of the armed forces. However, no steps were made to implement the decision and the PMF, as well as others, continued to act independently.

Against this backdrop, the first of at least five attacks against the Shiite militias took place, striking a PMF weapons storage facility on July 19 at the Amerli base north of Baghdad and killing at least two commanders, according to various reports.

If indeed carried out by Jerusalem — which appeared to indicate on Friday that it is in fact acting in Iraq — it would be the first such attack in Iraq since Israel’s 1981 bombing of a nuclear reactor that was being built by then-president Saddam Hussein’s government.

Illustrative: In this Jan. 27, 2018, file photo, US Army soldiers speak to families in rural Anbar on a reconnaissance patrol near a coalition outpost in western Iraq. (AP Photo/Susannah George, File)

Subsequent strikes targeting PMF officials and weapons depots took place at Camp Ashraf northeast of Baghdad on July 28; the Saqr military base in Baghdad on August 12; the Balad air base in the Salah ad Din Governate north of Baghdad on August 20; and the western Iraqi city of Qaim on August 25.

The factions in Baghdad now calling for a removal of US forces have been doing so well before the alleged Israeli strikes began — since the Obama administration dispatched troops to Iraq, in fact. But frustration began to boil over after the August 20 strike.

This may have been exacerbated by the statements anonymous US officials made to the press fingering Israel as responsible — any attack by the Jewish state would have required some degree of coordination with American forces.

Foreign Minister Mohamad al-Hakim (R) sits with the Charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Brian McFeeters after the latter was summoned on August 23, 2019. (Iraqi Foreign Ministry)

A day after the August 22 New York Times report that alleged Israeli responsibility, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim summoned the charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Brian McFeeters, where the sides discussed “ways to strengthen… bilateral relations between Baghdad and Washington,” according to a foreign ministry statement. It is likely the meeting touched on Iraqi chagrin at the attacks.

But three days later another strike took place.

The Fatah Alliance — a powerful bloc in Iraq’s parliament — issued a statement the next day blaming Israel and the US for the attack, which it called a “declaration of war.” Even the more moderate Iraqi government blasted the “colonialist” power responsible.

Apparently recognizing that frustration in Iraq had risen to the highest levels of government — including by those who have long supported American presence in the country — the Pentagon issued a rare statement recognizing Baghdad’s grievances and legitimizing their right to respond to the strikes in kind.

“We support Iraqi sovereignty and have repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq,” the Pentagon said. “The government of Iraq has the right to control their own internal security and protect their democracy.”

Members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces carry the coffin of their comrade Kazem Mohsen, known by his nom de guerre Abu Ali al-Dabi, during his funeral procession in the central Iraqi shrine city of Najaf on August 26, 2019. (Haidar Hamdani/Hashed al-Shaabi Media/AFP)

Mixed messaging

Despite the stern words, Middle East analyst and former Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova dismissed the prospect that the US statement amounted to a condemnation of the alleged Israeli strikes.

“They were trying to calm down the Iraqis and prevent the US from being tied to these strikes as much as they could,” she argued, adding that Washington perfectly understands Israeli concerns of Iranian entrenchment in the region. She viewed the Pentagon’s statement as a perfunctory one to appease the Iraqis, rather than a true denunciation of Israeli actions.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow focusing on Iraq and Syria at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the Pentagon’s statement was a testament to the divide in Washington between the army’s Central Command and the Iran hawks in the administration.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center left, talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, center right in Baghdad, during a Middle East tour, January 9, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/POOL/AFP)

The US Central Command “has forces on the ground and their main concern is their protection,” Tsurkov said. The proximity between American forces to the Shiite militias makes them prime targets for Iranian retaliation, she noted, explaining that the Pentagon statement was an attempt to “shield its forces from such retaliation.”

Meanwhile figures such as Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence were likely rather satisfied with airstrikes aimed at smudging Tehran’s growing footprint in Iraq, she said.

Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro expressed concern that mixed messaging Israel may be getting from the Pentagon and the White House further complicates the situation.

The Obama-era envoy, who now serves as a fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for International Security Studies, said balancing Israel’s desire to prevent Iran from deploying weapons at Iraqi bases with the US need to maintain a working relationship with the Iraqi government requires tight coordination between Washington and Jerusalem.

“Close cooperation requires a unified message,” Shapiro said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in April 2013. (Flash90)

In 2013, an anonymous Obama administration official confirmed to CNN that Israel had been behind a strike on a weapons convoy in Syria, deeply angering Jerusalem.

Shapiro, who was ambassador at the time, called the comments “frustrating” and said the official had not been authorized to speak to the press on the matter.

While it is unclear whether the US officials who spoke to reporters last week did so with authorization from above, Shapiro said their comments, coupled with other statements from Washington appearing to give Israel more of a blank check to act against Iran in the region, don’t make things easier for any of the sides involved.

INSS researcher Orit Perlov similarly expressed doubt regarding the extent of Israel’s maneuverability.

“It’s clear that the red light the Obama administration gave regarding such attacks has been removed,” she said. “However, the extent of the new green light is not yet clear.”

Satellite photo of a weapons depot in southern Baghdad controlled by a pro-Iranian militia that was hit in an alleged Israeli operation on August 12, 2019. (ImageSat International)

Troop withdrawal unlikely

Regardless of communication problems that may exist between the US and Israel, the likelihood of the situation in Iraq deteriorating to a point where Baghdad asks the US to end its mandate there appears slim.

“The Iraqi government is too weak. They won’t ask the US to leave,” said Svetlova, who credited American troops with saving the Iraqi government from falling apart completely during the years of conflict with Islamic State.

While Tsurkov recognized the dominant elements in Baghdad calling for a removal of US troops, she said Israeli airstrikes were unlikely to be a deciding factor.

“I don’t think it’s possible to draw a straight line between Israeli strikes and continued US presence in Iraq,” she said.

“The Iraqi government has to take into consideration other factors such as the ongoing campaign against IS cells. Overall, I don’t think that the [alleged Israeli] strikes will have much influence,” Tsurkov added.

She added that US troops were far more likely to encounter danger from Iran and its proxies due to the Trump administration’s sanctions against Iran and tensions in the Gulf, rather than any actions by Israel.

Satellite photo of a weapons depot in southern Baghdad controlled by a pro-Iranian militia that was hit in an alleged Israeli operation on August 12, 2019. (ImageSat International)

Perlov was the lone analyst who spoke more openly about the possibility of a US withdrawal. The INSS Arab social media and discourse researcher predicted with “one hundred percent certainty” that the PMF would respond in some manner to the recent airstrikes.

“If their response is limited, it will be possible [for Israel] to continue the strikes, but if it is more substantial, then the US could bar further strikes or leave altogether,” Perlov said.

She speculated that a more likely scenario would see Israel receiving a temporary “ceasefire” order from Washington — similar to the one that it reportedly accepted from Moscow after a September 2018 raid in Syria caused the Syrian military to mistakenly down a Russian plane, killing 15 crew members.

Popular Mobilization Forces members stand by a burning truck after a drone attack blamed on Israel near Qaim border crossing, in Anbar province, Iraq, August 25, 2019. (AP Photo)

Kirk Sowell, an Iraq expert at the Amman-based Utica Risk Services, argued that because the American presence in Iraq is narrowly defined for assistance in the war on IS, it is unlikely that Baghdad will ask them to further constrain their efforts or demand that they leave altogether.

“It does create some problems, and I think it would be better for the US to tell the Israelis to limit their airstrikes to Syria and Lebanon, but I think it will blow over,” he surmised.

What doesn’t kill you…

Perlov offered that the alleged Israeli strikes might actually strengthen US-Israeli ties.

“The US is more comfortable with [Israel] carrying these strikes out instead of them,” she said, explaining that they offer a degree of plausible deniability while also combating Iranian influence.

US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

“I don’t think that these strikes are jeopardizing the relationship. They are placing US forces in Iraq in a tricky situation, but the relationship [between] the American government and Israel has never been stronger,” Tsurkov said.

Shapiro too said he was ultimately “confident in the ability of Israel and the US to coordinate [their] policies and communicate clearly with one another to prevent causing harm to US interests while ensuring that Israeli security needs are met.”

AP contributed to this report.

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