April 16, 2024

Proxy battles: Iraq, Iran, and the turmoil in the Middle East

Since Hamas’s attacks sparked the war in Gaza on 7 October 2023, a dangerous cycle of escalation has played out across the Middle East. Iran and its proxies – such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Iraqi paramilitaries operating as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq – have exchanged attacks with Israel and the US military presence across the region. This threatens to erupt into a wider war, particularly since Iran’s unprecedented direct attack against Israel on 13 April 2024 in response to Israel’s bombing of the Iranian consulate in Syria on 1 April.

Prior to this, Iraqi paramilitaries had launched over 170 attacks against US military bases in Iraq and Syria. US forces retaliated, most controversially in a drone strike on a crowded street in Baghdad on 8 February. As with the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, Tehran publicly celebrated the feats of its proxies and allies while vehemently denying any involvement or support. And, despite the Islamic Resistance in Iraq announcing a pause in these attacks, the Iraqi government once again finds itself wedged between a regional power and a world power, placing the country under grave threat of being drawn into wider conflict through the action of Iran-backed armed groups rather than official government policy.

Iraq’s longstanding stance on Palestine is a matter of alignment with Iran, not a result of the latter’s influence.

This would be disastrous for Iraq. Up until 7 October, Iraqis had finally begun to experience a sense of normalcy and security after decades of unrest. Domestic concerns had shifted from existential matters such as terrorism, occupation, and secessionism to less violent matters like climate change, corruption, and unemployment. Iraq had even begun to host prominent international conferences, seeking to cement itself as a neutral facilitator of stabilising dialogue in the Middle East – something it had been attempting to do since 2012.

Clearly, neither the Iraqi government nor its population wants to be party to a US-Iranian confrontation on their territory or face a wider regional conflict. But they have also consistently supported the Palestinian cause and strongly oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza. This presents significant challenges for Iraq’s government in calibrating its response to Iran-linked rogue actors internally and US support for Israel’s war externally.

Read the full article from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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