Iranian attack on Iraq signals defiance towards US allies in the region – experts say

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards take responsibility for attack on Erbil - Iranian state media
FILE PHOTO: View of a damaged building after rocket attacks in Erbil, Iraq March 13, 2022. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/File Photo

March 14, 2022

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Billed by Tehran as a warning to Israel, Sunday’s attack on an Iraqi city was also a stark reminder of Iran’s armed hold on its US and Arab enemies at a sensitive moment for the Islamic republic , Iraqi and Western officials and Independent analysts say.

The unusual direct strike coincides with a potential turning point in the balance of power in the Middle East, as talks to revive an Iranian nuclear deal face potential collapse and heightened risks of war in the Gulf, while Iraqi leaders in Baghdad seek to form a new government freed of Iranian influence .

Both developments, some regional analysts say, help explain why Iran has chosen this moment to demonstrate its readiness to deploy ballistic missiles, long prized by Tehran as a deterrent against the United States, Israel and the Gulf Arab states, which Dispute Tehran’s regional influence.

The decision by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to fire the projectiles directly into the area controlled by the US-friendly Kurdistan Regional Government – and to declare the attack – is a departure from Iran’s normal practice of exerting military pressure through proxy militias. [L2N2VF0JB] 5N2N72Q8]

The rockets fell near a building where the US consular team is due to move into in Erbil, the autonomous capital of Kurdistan. It caused no US casualties and injured one civilian.

The IRGC said the attack targeted Israeli “strategic centers” and was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike that killed two of its members in Syria last week.

The Baghdad government did not respond to Reuters questions about which Israeli sites the IRGC was referring to. There was no immediate response from the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad to a Reuters request for comment on the IRGC’s mention of Israel’s strategic centers. The Erbil government denied that there are Israeli sites on its territory.

The Israeli killing of IRGC members in Syria was likely the trigger for the Erbil attack, but the attack was also a warning to the United States and its Arab Gulf partners, as well as Iraqi leaders, who are threatening to form a government that Tehran will overthrow excludes key allies in Baghdad, officials and experts said.

“This is about three things,” said Professor Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics.

“There’s the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), rebellion between Iranians, Israelis and the US, and now the Iraqi government formation. So they send a series of messages.”

An Iran-aligned Iraqi militia commander insisted Israel was the primary target, but acknowledged the message being sent could be broader — and a clear sign Iran is ready to escalate if it feels threatened.

“It is a message to Israel and to all countries that they will respond to any missile attack,” said the commander, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.


Israel has stepped up its attacks against the IRGC and its proxies in the region with at least 15 airstrikes on Iran’s regional ally Syria over the past year, nine of which have been carried out in the past four months, according to a Reuters tally.

Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have routinely attacked US targets in recent years, including their force of around 2,000 troops stationed in Iraq and Syria in a bid to combat the remnants of Islamic State with increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Washington’s own actions included the 2020 assassination of fabled Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran responded to that killing with a volley of missiles at a US base in Iraq, its last known direct attack on the United States.

Tehran’s talks with Washington about relaunching a 2015 nuclear deal that would bring much-needed sanctions relief were bogged down by a last-minute Russian demand.

Their collapse could mean Tehran moves closer to developing nuclear weapons if it so desires, a prospect that would send the region into turmoil. Tehran denies ever looking for nuclear bombs.

Iran is widely believed to have used military pressure to pressurize earlier rounds of talks and on Monday said it was up to Washington to revive a deal.

“Did the Iranians consider all of these factors when deciding to launch the missiles? I’m not so sure – the incident in Israel was the trigger,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraqi analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“But there are many other factors at play…how Russia makes demands on the JCPOA,” Higel said.


In Iraq, Iran’s opponents have taken the strike as a warning to themselves amid thorny talks over forming a government after October’s general election.

This election brought victory to the powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia Muslim leader who opposes Iranian influence and is the main competitor of Iran’s allied Shia.

Sadr has threatened to oust Iran-backed groups from government and has forged an alliance with the Kurdish Democratic Party, which governs Erbil, and with Sunni Arab groups.

Sadr issued a statement on Twitter on Sunday saying the Iraqi Kurds were the target of the Erbil attack and vowing to continue his “national-majority government” — a euphemism for a government free of Iranian influence .

A senior official from Sadr’s political office said Sadr’s plans would effectively bar Iranian Shia allies from the government for the first time since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“The rockets were a message to Sadr warning against breaking with other Shia and aligning with a side that has ties to Israel,” the official said, referring to the Kurds, who have maintained discreet ties with Israel for decades.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Sadr’s movement has mandated that no one be allowed to speak to the media during government talks.

Dodge said Iran’s message is bold but risky and that Iraq will bear the brunt of any further violence. Iran’s opponents would seek revenge against Tehran or its proxies, he said.

“You’re getting into that tit-for-tat again. Whatever happens next, it’s more instability for Iraq.”

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Amina Ismail in Erbil, editing by William Maclean) Iranian attack on Iraq signals defiance towards US allies in the region – experts say

Bobby Allyn

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