EXCLUSIVE: Iran-backed groups agree to suspend attacks on US forces in Iraq
Iraqi armed groups backed by Iran have agreed to halt attacks on US forces on the condition that Washington agrees to return to a state of "calm", sources told Middle East Eye.
The sources told MEE on Tuesday that commanders from several armed groups met in the Iraqi capital Baghdad late on Monday where they agreed to "contain" the situation after pro-Iranian groups shelled areas in Syria's Deir Ezzor, ostensibly targeting US forces near the Omar oil fields.
The shelling came after the US conducted air strikes on Sunday in Iraq and Syria, killing four fighters.
The sources said that Monday's meeting was held in the office of Faleh al-Fayyadh, the head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Authority (PMA), where several armed groups agreed to "activate a truce with the US forces, provided the Americans remain calm".
According to the sources, the meeting was attended by Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organisation; Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, chief of staff of the PMA; representatives from Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq; Kataib Hezbollah (KH); Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) and others.
One of the attendees told MEE that an Iraqi faction, likely KH, carried out the attack against US forces in Deir Ezzor on Monday.
The attendee said that leaders from the armed groups were "satisfied with the attack in response to the American raid" and were ready to return to the unofficial truce "provided that the Americans remain calm as well".
Meanwhile, a commander said that "some of them [the armed groups] are considering another attack inside Syrian territory, but there was no agreement on this proposal".
US defends attack
On Monday, the US defended its decision to conduct air strikes in Iraq and Syria, but both countries condemned the unilateral raids as violations of their sovereignty.
The US said the strikes were in response to attacks that targeted US contractors and Iraqi facilities, and the raids targeted weapons depots and facilities in three locations - one in Iraq and two in Syria.
The Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, described the air strikes as "defensive", adding that the US took "necessary, appropriate and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation – but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message".
The Pentagon had initially said the raids did not result in any casualties, but a senior commander from the PMA told MEE that four fighters were killed near the Iraq-Syria border.
According to the commander, KH "had evacuated" their positions 24 hours before the attack and "did not incur real material or human losses".
"One of the raids targeted a house used by the fighters of the 14th Brigade (KSS) inside Iraq's border. The strike was devastating. Two of the fighters had their remains collected, while the bodies of the other two were found intact," the commander said.
"As for the other two raids, they targeted two positions stationed by Kataib Hezbollah inside Syrian territory. For an unknown reason, the brigades had evacuated these two points hours before the strike, and their fighters gathered about 500 metres away.
"Eight of the fighters were lightly wounded as a result of the storm left by the strike and not as a result of direct fire."
Embarrassed the government
Iraq's government, wary of getting dragged into a US-Iran conflict, condemned the strikes on its territory and said it would "study all legal options" to prevent such action from being repeated.
According to a source close to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the government was left "embarrassed" by the Biden administration's actions.
"Frankly, this raid embarrassed him [Kadhimi] and undoubtedly made his task in preparing the atmosphere for early parliamentary elections more complicated," the source told MEE.
"The prime minister, since taking office, has been trying to contain these factions and keep Iraq away from the US-Iranian conflict. However, the Americans embarrassed him and put him under more pressure."
Sunday's air strikes marked the second time the Biden administration took military action in the region. In February, the US launched air strikes against facilities in Syria, near the Iraqi border, that it said were used by Iranian-backed groups.
"The American raid this time is the same as the missiles fired by these factions. Everyone is talking about Iraqi sovereignty while all of them participate in violating it and work to belittle Iraq and its government, including the Americans," the source close to Kadhimi added.
Meanwhile, a prominent commander of the PMA said the raids may have been intended to "embarrass" Khadhimi after he sponsored a weapons parade in Diyala province on Saturday that marked the seventh anniversary of the paramilitary force's founding.
"His attendance at the parade cost him internally and externally," the commander said.
"Kadhimi lost the support of Muqtada al-Sadr at home, and the American support abroad, so everyone [leaders of Iraq's armed groups] agreed to support him."
Since the start of the year, Iran-backed armed groups have carried out at least 40 attacks against US interests in Iraq.