BEIRUT – In the span of weeks, Iraqis watched with deepening anxiety as their country, long the site of proxy fighting between Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces, has turned into an open battlefield.
The tit-for-tat violence was set off when a rocket attack by Iran-backed militia group Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah brigades, caused the death of an American contractor and culminated with the U.S. striking a road near Baghdad International Airport killing a top Iranian general. Iran responded by firing over a dozen missiles at two Iraqi military bases that house American troops in retaliation.
The brazen attacks infuriated Iraqis from top officials to the street who condemned them on Wednesday as blatantly disregarding Iraq’s independence, calling on clashing parties not use Iraqi soil to settle scores. Hours later, U.S. President Donald Trump said Iran “appears to be standing down,” in a sign that both parties were relaxing aggressive postures and stepping away from escalating violence.
At every tumultuous turn of events Iraqi sovereignty has been disregarded and ignored, stirring fears among people of impending crisis and sending Baghdad officials scrambling to contain a crisis beyond their control. The country’s executive leadership called on the U.S. and Iran to show restraint, while protesters took to the streets to take a stand against the attacks.
Tensions came to a fever pitch when Iranians fired over a dozen missiles the previous day, according to U.S. officials, hitting Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops in Ain al-Assad and Irbil. There were no casualties, according to a spokesperson of the U.S.-led coalition. The attack came in response to a U.S. airstrike last week that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said the Iranians had informed him of their intent to use Iraqi airspace to strike American military targets, in a statement from his office.
Abdul-Mahdi said the notification came from Iran just after midnight that its retaliation “was starting or would start soon” and would focus only on U.S. positions, according to the statement.
Iraq was “simultaneously informed” by the Americans that military bases in Ain al-Asad and Irbil were under attack, the statement, which one official said Abdul-Mahdi himself wrote, said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
According to U.S. officials, early warning systems detected the missiles launched, giving personnel at the bases time to find shelter. Two Iraqi official said the missiles took 35 minutes to reach their targets.
“Iraq refuses any violation of its sovereignty and any attacks on its territory,” the statement said, adding that Iraq was doing everything in its power to contain the situation and avoid a “devastating all-out war.”
“This strike might be part of the process to restore (Iran’s) deterrence that was lost after the assassination that America carried in the region,” said Kamel Wazne, director of the American Strategic Studies center in Beirut about the Iran overnight missile attack in Iraq.
He added that the escalation that the region witnessed over the past days whether by Iran or the U.S. “is to prevent a war not to incite one.” He added that it is in no ones interest that there be a war in this region as it “will have negative repercussions on everyone and everyone knows that.”
Iraq’s president and speaker of Parliament both condemned the strike and called for leaders to spare the country from becoming embroiled in another war.
Barham Saleh’s office denounced repeated breaches on Iraq’s sovereignty. He also said that the subject of U.S. troop presence was an internal matter based on legal agreements.
The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq took center focus following the airstrike that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis. The attack drew the ire of Iraqi officials from across political divides because it was carried out without Iraqi approval or knowledge and emboldened pro-Iran political factions to push for lawmakers to pass a non-binding parliamentary resolution to oust U.S. troops from the country.
Lawmakers effectively put the question of formally requesting troops to leave in the hands of the government. Abdul-Mahdi has said U.S. troops must withdraw, but did not reiterate this in his Wednesday statement.
Saleh said that Iraq “has previously declared its refusal to be a starting point for aggression against any country, and also refuses to be a source of threat to any of its neighbors.”
Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi was bolder by directly condemning Iran’s missile attack on U.S. military positions.
“In these difficult circumstances we renew our calls to the Iraqi government to take necessary political, legal and security measures to stop such attacks and work to preserve Iraqi sovereignty from violations,” he said in a statement.
In the capital, anti-government demonstrators set fires and closed roads on Wednesday morning near Tahrir Square in a protest against the Iranian missile strike. Dozens shouted “Iran out!” carrying Iraqi flags, before they were dispersed by security forces.
The protesters who rose up against their country’s ruling elite in October, accusing them of corruption, have also been revolting against neighboring Iran’s military and political involvement.
“We don’t stand with Iran, we don’t stand with America, we stand with Iraq,” said Saif, 33 a protester. “We don’t want a foreign war on Iraqi soil. Our leaders should act.”