The Trump administration’s short-sighted decision to use the military option against the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, which killed 25 militia members, has caused irreparable damage concerning US-Iraq relations. The strike was announced as a retaliatory and defensive measure, following the recent rocket attack against a US base (which injured US troops and killed an American contractor). Hoping to limit Iran’s regional influence, as part of the administration's “maximum pressure” strategy, the strike aimed to send a strong message to Iran. However, the attack quickly backfired when unprecedented anti-American demonstrations, led by pro-Iran militias, broke out in-front of the United States’ largest embassy in the world, located in Baghdad. Scenes of Iraqi and Kata’ib Hezbollah flags flying over the US compound echoed the 1979 US embassy take-over in Tehran, which severed US-Iran diplomatic relations.
While US-Iraq diplomatic relations have survived the recent crisis, many Iraqis have once again united under an anti-American banner. This development comes after months of violent protests in Iraq’s Shiite-populated provinces against government corruption and mismanagement. Some of these protesters also chanted anti-Iranian slogans, and Iran’s consulate in Najaf was torched two times amid the riots. Not surprisingly, US officials, who intended to limit the Islamic Republic’s regional influence, were ecstatic as they witnessed anti-Iranian sentiments at the heart of Iran’s sphere of influence. It was in this environment that the US felt confident that a military strike against the Iranian-backed militia would receive little political backlash.
Instead, this miscalculation reminded the Iraqis of the devastating and humiliating 2003 invasion; when Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was neglected in an unprovoked occupation that costed thousands of lives. Also, not only the strike had violated Iraqi independence, it was launched against a militia that helped fight and defeat ISIS alongside Iraq’s military. Consequently, the attack triggered fierce political backlash from all of Iraq’s major Shiite political factions, who had been up until now engulfed in political divisions over the recent anti-government protests.
The Trump administration now faces few options in Iraq; whether to start a gradual complete withdrawal from Iraq or stay and risk further political backlash. Either scenario will benefit Iran’s interests. The former will help Iran secure its western border, given the threat posed by American forces stationed in Iraq, while the latter will inevitably fuel violent anti-American sentiments, potentially sparking a wider future conflict between US forces and Iraqi militias. In summary, due to this American over-reach, Iran has restored its political capital in Iraq.
Meanwhile, this irreversible damage has tarnished America’s credibility in Baghdad. Regardless of what Trump decides to do with the Iraq portfolio, the humiliated Iraqi leadership, which was unable to prevent an unpermitted American strike, will have little choice but to distance itself from US interests and save face.