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Striking Iraq was a low-risk opportunity for Netanyahu

The balance between the US and Iran in Iraq allowed Netanyahu to make a military show of might before the election
Members of Iraq's Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) paramilitaries in Basra, on 31 May (AFP)

Iraq is locked in an Iranian-American-Israeli geopolitical triangle of tensions.

An air strike on 20 August against a Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU) militia base in central Iraq was the fourth in a series of recent attacks targeting their facilities. Israel did not deny its role in the strike, asserting that it was part of its campaign to weaken Iranian influence in Iraq. 

Many questions

The question remains as to why Israel claimed credit for the attack, when usually it seeks a policy of plausible deniability after an air strike or assassination?

Second, why did Iran, the Iraqi government, and the PMU all remain relatively quiet immediately after the attack? As of yet Iran and its allied militias within the PMU have failed to retaliate after this provocation. 

The question remains as to why Israel claimed credit for the attack, when usually it seeks a policy of plausible deniability after an air strike or assassination?

On 26 August and following a drone strike in the western Iraqi town of Qaim which killed a PMU commander, the Fatah Coalition, a parliamentary bloc representing PMU, said the attacks were "a declaration of war on Iraq and its people" and held the US fully responsible for it.

However, the answer to the above questions can be answered by the complex regional equation that maintains the balance of power in Iraq. After the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Baghdad had to balance relations with Iran and the US, and on numerous occasions both Tehran and Washington have pursued their own objectives in Iraq, without any regards for its sovereignty.

The recent strikes symbolise Israel’s ability to do the same in Iraq, creating a complex triangle of actors seeking to project their power there, yet playing by certain rules that have kept the triangle from collapsing into a proxy battleground. 

The Israeli angle 

Israel targeting Iraq from the air is significant: it is has not done so since its 1981 air raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

The recent strike will do little to damage the PMUs or Iran’s influence in Iraq, which raises the question as to why Israel bothered in the first place? The answers have to do with Israel’s, or more precisely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s, domestic, regional and international objectives. 

Israel targeting Iraq from the air is significant as it is has not done so since its 1981 air raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor

Since 2017 Israel has primarily focused on alleged Iranian weapons depots and convoys in Syria, conducting more than 200 air strikes. On the domestic level, as Netanyahu heads into a re-election later this month, he can claim credit for a more spectacular act in Iraq than the usual strikes in Syria. 

On the regional level the strikes in Iraq, a state on Iran’s borders, serve as another demonstration of the long range of Israel’s aircraft.  

Internationally, the latest Israeli strikes in Iraq coincided with recent French attempts to facilitate Iranian-American negotiations to deescalate current tensions. These overtures could have been scuttled had any Iranian-affiliated Iraqi groups retaliated against US forces deployed in Iraq. 

The US-Iran connection

Ironically, both the US and Iran have the same foreign policy angle when it comes to Iraq. Neither one seeks a potential conflagration in Iraq in which they cannot control the outcome. Thus, both are displeased by Israel’s actions as they threatens their assets in Iraq. Israel targeted Iranian weapons and facilities in Iraq, while the US fears that Israel’s actions could jeopardise American forces in Iraq. 

A billboard installed by members of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi on a main road in Baghdad with the slogan: "Death to America and Israel" next to a picture of a helicopter carrying a coffin draped with the US flag on 30 August (AFP)
A billboard erected by members of Iraq's Hashd al-Shaabi on a main road in Baghdad reads: "Death to America and Israel" on 30 August (AFP)

Nevertheless, this situation remains precarious for Iran as the various militias within the PMUs have their own agency and constituencies. Both the Iraqi and Iranian government have to calculate the risk that one of these militias could act on their own.

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Fortunately for both Iran, Iraq, and the US none of the PMU militias had taken matters into their own hands against the American forces as of yet. Pro-Iranian militias within the PMU were most likely instructed to not retaliate after the attacks.

While these militias have little means at their disposal in terms of missiles or artillery that could reach Israel, they do have the ability to attack American forces in Iraq, which some of the PMUs have blamed for the strikes, alleging that the US had colluded with Israel. 

The Iraqi target

A former Israeli air force general, who took part in the 1981 raid, asked in a Foreign Policy piece: “Is Iraq the New Front Line in Israel’s Conflict with Iran?” The answer to this question can be found in both Iranian and American unwillingness to let Iraq emerge as a new battleground, as both are already facing off in the Gulf, which has already emerged as a low intensity theatre of conflict on the high seas.

Iraq provided a unique target of opportunity for Netanyahu. Israel, aware of this precarious balance, could strike targets in Iraq knowing it could get away with it and face few repercussions. The balance between the US and Iran in Iraq prevailed, allowing Netanyahu a military show of might before the election. 

In the past, not only Iran and the US undermined Iraq’s sovereignty after 2003, but so did most of Iraq's neighbours, including Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Israel has become just another regional actor to do so, albeit trying to foment tensions at a time when the stakes have never been higher. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi
Ibrahim Al-Marashi is associate professor of Middle East History at California State University San Marcos. His publications include Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History (2008), The Modern History of Iraq (2017), and A Concise History of the Middle East (forthcoming).