The million-strong protests that took place in Iraq on the anniversary of the killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis along with 8 other people in a January 3, 2020 US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq became the latest breeding ground for the rise of anti-American sentiment in this Middle Eastern nation. The demonstrators called for those responsible for Washington’s incendiary actions to be punished and demanded that remaining US troops leave Iraq. These marches were also a heavy blow to the United States’ policies in Iraq and the entire Middle Eastern region.
During the aforementioned protests, a number of Iraqi government officials said the attack on the Iraqi soil was a violation of national sovereignty and helped unite Baghdad and Tehran in their fight against US policy in the region. According to a January 3 article published by Alsumaria News (an Iraqi TV network), Brigadier General Yahya Rasool Abdullah, Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces and the military spokesman for Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, stated that the government did not want Iraq to become a staging ground for an attack on neighboring countries, and called on the US and Iran to respect the sovereignty of Iraq, which was a red line for the armed forces. Leader of the Fatah Alliance (involved in the Popular Mobilization Forces) and politician Hadi Al-Amiri told the protesters that all foreign forces needed to leave Iraq.
According to a statement from Pentagon, US President Donald Trump personally ordered the drone strike because Iran was purportedly planning attacks on four US embassies. However, the US Defense Secretary at the time, Mark Esper, said he had not seen specific evidence from intelligence officials that Iran was plotting attacks on concrete diplomatic missions, yet they took Trump’s word for it.
In the current climate, on January 7, 2021, as part of its investigation into the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Baghdad court issued an arrest warrant for US President Donald Trump under Article 406 of the Iraqi Penal Code, “which provides for the death penalty in all cases of premeditated murder”. Iraqi media outlets have reported that “the warrant was made after the judge recorded the statements of the personal claimants from the family of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis”. The courts had previously considered requests from Iran. Former Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Baha al-Araji “welcomed the news of the arrest warrant on Twitter, describing it as a victory for the Iraqi state.” Humam Hamoudi, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, congratulated the Iraqi judiciary on their brave decision.
A year ago, on January 3, 2020, after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, vowed to avenge the Major General’s death. On January 8, 2020, Iran launched ballistic missiles at two bases hosting US and coalition forces in Iraq. Donald Trump decided not to retaliate against Iran militarily, after all, no servicemen were seriously injured as a result of the attack. According to the Pentagon, there were 109 US troops diagnosed with traumatic brain injury following the missile strike against the Ayn al Asad air base in western Iraq.
At the end of last year, Head of the Iranian Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights, Ali Bagheri-Kani, announced that Iran had identified 48 persons involved in the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani and taken measures for their prosecution. Countries in one way or another involved in this terrorist attack had been encouraged to cooperate with the investigation, specifically to provide Iranian judiciary with any requested information. Ali Bagheri-Kani also alleged the United States had used the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany to relay satellite signals that steered the drone attack against Qasem Soleimani.
In this charged climate, opposition to the presence of US-led coalition troops in Iraq has been growing recently. In December 2020, defenses at the Ayn al Asad air base in Iraq were strengthened as a precaution against Iranian-backed militia attacks as well as in view of the inauguration of Joe Biden.
On January 3, as Alsumaria News wrote, “a logistical support convoy of the international coalition had been targeted by an explosive device on Samarra Road” in Iraq’s Salah ad Din Governorate. Couple of days earlier, two convoys carrying auxiliary equipment were attacked by roadside bombs in Iraq’s southern province of al-Qadisiyah. On January 6, 2021, it was reported that roadside IEDs targeted convoys with supplies for the US-led coalition in the Yusufiya area south of Baghdad and in Al Muthanna Province.
It remains unclear what militant group(s) these attackers belong to. Still, Iraqi Shiite insurgent faction “Brigades of Qasim al-Jabarin” have claimed responsibility for some of the aforementioned attacks.
In response to a resolution calling on the government to expel foreign troops from the country, which the Iraqi parliament passed on January 5, 2020, and similar demands from the local populace as of recent, the United States leadership and subsequently, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi started talking about the gradual withdrawal of US-led forces from Iraq. The Prime Minister of Iraq announced that “the withdrawal of more than half of” US troops from the country would be completed during the coming days, as a fruit of the continuous strategic dialogue with the United States. He added that only hundreds of them would remain “to cooperate in the fields of training, rehabilitation, armament and technical support”.
In response to anti-US rhetoric from Iraqi officials, on January 8, 2021, the “US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Iraqi Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chairman and former National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyadh for his connection to serious human rights abuse”. He is accused of being a “part of a crisis cell comprised primarily of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia leaders formed in late 2019 to suppress the Iraqi protests with the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF),” headed by Qasem Soleimani in the past. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (which was enacted in 2016) authorized the US government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders. As a result, all property and interests in property of Falih al-Fayyadh that are in the United States or in the possession or control of US persons and any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are blocked. Falih al-Fayyadh is also banned from entering the United States. Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that the US decision “was an unacceptable surprise”.
In the meantime, various protests are ongoing in different parts of Iraq, organized by opponents of the current Iraqi government and backed from abroad. For instance, on January 11, there violent clashes erupted between security forces and demonstrators in Nasiriyah, Iraq, with police resorting to tear gas and batons. Marches to protest corruption, unemployment and inefficient public services first began in October 2019 and spread to the central and southern provinces of Iraq. As a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned. Aside from the US role in possibly encouraging such protests due to policy disagreements between the United States’ and Iraqi leadership, ANNA-News reported that Turkey has also been inciting the demonstrators.
Vladimir Platov, an expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.