BEIRUT – For months, Iraqis have watched with deepening anxiety as tensions between Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces soared, fearing their long-beleaguered country would turn into a battleground for direct and open conflict between America and Iran.
Those fears were realized in the past week when a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, after he landed at Baghdad airport, and Iran responded by firing over a dozen missiles at Iraqi military bases housing American troops.
From the country's top leadership down to the street, many Iraqis are irate at what they see as blatant violations of their sovereignty, yet are helpless as Iran and the U.S. trade blows on Iraqi soil. At every tumultuous turn, Iraq's independence has seemingly been ignored by its two closest allies, who happen to be bitter enemies.
Tensions eased on Wednesday when U.S. President Donald Trump signaled that Washington was stepping away from escalation.
But it remains to be seen what effect the clashes will have on Iraq's willingness to allow American troops to remain on Iraqi soil.
In the immediate aftermath of Soleimani's killing, Iraq's Parliament angrily voted to expel the estimated 5,200 U.S. forces stationed in the country to fight the Islamic State group — a nonbinding measure that needs the approval of the Iraqi government.
The easing of tensions in the wake of the Iranian missile attack, which caused no casualties, appears to have tempered the political resolve to immediately push American troops out.
“It slowed the momentum to remove forces that definitely reached its peak" during the parliamentary vote, said Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the Middle East Institute. “It's created a more relaxed atmosphere to negotiate conditions of the removal of U.S. forces that won't come across to the White House as disrespectful of the U.S.”
Weeks of tit-for-tat violence illustrated how Iraq's leadership was powerless to prevent the two sides from battling on its soil, first through proxies, then face to face.
The violence was set off when a rocket attack blamed on the Iranian-backed militia group Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, caused the death of an American contractor at a base in Kirkuk province. The U.S. replied with a barrage of strikes on the militia's bases, killing at least 25 people.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi got a call from U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper a half-hour before the strike to tell him of U.S. intentions. He urged Esper to call off the plan, “but there was insistence,” according to a statement from the premier's office.
The militia fighters' deaths prompted enraged supporters to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for two days, breaking into the compound and setting fires.
The U.S. then killed Soleimani in a drone strike that also cost the lives of a senior Iraqi militia leader and others.
Shortly before Iran stuck back with its missile barrage against two Iraqi military bases in Ain al-Asad and Irbil that house American troops, the Iranians informed Abdul-Mahdi of its plans, according to his office.
The morning after, anti-government Iraqi demonstrators in Baghdad set fires and closed roads near Tahrir Square.
“We don't want a foreign war on Iraqi soil. Our leaders should act," said Saif, a 33-year-old protester speaking on condition his full name not be used for fear of reprisals.
Following the Iranian strike, Iraq’s president and speaker of Parliament issued condemnations and called for foreign leaders to spare the country from becoming embroiled in another war. Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim likewise denounced the “blatant violations” without naming either Iran or the U.S. He said all sides must respect Iraq's sovereignty and called on all foreign forces to leave.
Still, politicians' demands that U.S. troops get out appear to be on a lower flame for the moment.
In the halls of Parliament, some lawmakers discussed refocusing the agenda on nominating a new prime minister to replace the outgoing Abdul-Mahdi. Abdul-Mahdi resigned in December under mounting pressure from mass protests and is serving in a caretaker capacity.
Lawmakers, experts and officials said they still expect U.S. troops to eventually leave as a result of the killing of Soleimani, but the question now is when and under what circumstances.
“Tehran expects the prime minister to fulfill that demand,” Slim said. “It's not about U.S.-Iran anymore. It's about the symbolism of removing U.S. forces after the killing of Soleimani by Americans and what that symbolism means for Tehran.”
Kullab reported from Beirut, Abdul-Zahra from Baghdad.