Iraq fears Trump’s final weeks could see confrontation between U.S. and Iran

(The Washington Post) The Iraqi government is on edge as the Trump presidency enters its final weeks, fearing that a last-minute confrontation between the United States and Iran could erupt on Iraqi soil.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is under pressure from U.S. officials to escalate his government’s crackdown on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, whose rockets have repeatedly targeted diplomatic and military sites used by Americans over the past year. President Trump has now told his advisers he is prepared to order a devastating response if any Americans are killed in attacks attributed to Iran.

With tensions running high, there are concerns here that provocative actions by either side could spark unintended conflict.

“As a government, I think the Iraqis are just wishing they could close their eyes and have these two months fly by. The potential for escalation is high,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq expert and fellow at the Century Foundation.

Tensions in the region spiked further on Friday after a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in an apparent targeted attack in Tehran. Iranian officials implicated Israel in the killing, raising the prospect that Iran or its proxies in the Middle East might retaliate against Western targets.

On Nov. 17, a militia fired rockets toward the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, breaching a month-old truce but causing no casualties among Americans or Iraqi security forces.

An armed group identifying itself as Ashab al-Kahf said it had fired the barrage in response to a raid a night before in the city of Fallujah, which led to the arrest of three militiamen. Iraqi security personnel, a senior militia leader, two Western officials and an eyewitness on the street confirmed that the raid took place, although it remains unclear who was detained.

After the rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy, the influential Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah group denied involvement and said the truce was still in effect, highlighting apparent divisions in the militia camp and potential threats posed by factions that strike out on their own.

“The fact that this scene is becoming more complicated means that danger is lurking everywhere,” said Jiyad.

The raid in Fallujah came several weeks after the United States intensified its pressure on Kadhimi’s government to bring the Iranian-backed militias to heel, ratcheting up tensions in Iraq.

In calls to Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih in late September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to shutter the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad unless militia rocket attacks were reined in. U.S. officials say that a plan for closing the embassy remains a live possibility, and administration officials have been instructed to prepare for various scenarios.

In a further sign of internal strains in Iraq, at least five anti-government protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah were killed Saturday in clashes with supporters of a politically powerful Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Associated Press reported, citing medical officials. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

While U.S. officials have advised Trump against a preemptive strike on Iran, according to a senior official, they say that Trump has described the killing of an American as a red line that would prompt immediate and “crushing” retaliation.

Days after Trump met with his advisers to review possible action against Iran and those discussions were reported by the U.S. media, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, responsible for Tehran’s special operations abroad, visited Baghdad to urge restraint.

Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaani warned affiliated militias and political factions against any escalation of attacks on U.S. targets before Trump leaves office, according to individuals briefed on the matter or present in the meeting. “Trump already lost everything. Just wait for him to be out of the picture,” Qaani said, according to someone present during the conversation.

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