The World Health Organization assures that in the next ten days coronavirus cases will skyrocket in Iraq, a country where thirty years of wars, embargoes and corruption have ruined most hospitals and the health system is the most precarious.
Income from the sale of oil, which represents 90% of the country’s wealth, fell by half in March. And after months of political crisis, the different Shia groups are unable to agree on the government of the new Prime Minister, Adnan al Zurfi.
In the midst of this chaos, and when all energies should be concentrated in curbing the epidemic, solving military disputes, and emerging from the economic crisis, Iraq has once again been caught up in Iran and the U.S.’s long-running war through its allies on the ground.
Pro-Iranian militias have intensified attacks on military bases with the presence of US soldiers, while these bases have been protected with new and battery-powered Patriot missiles. Both Washington and Tehran, and especially the militias fighting for one or the other, are accused of preparing offensives in the coming days.
A report compiled by The New York Times collected the debate in the White House about whether to increase military action against Iran in Iraqi territory. The voices are divided between those who think that this is not the time – this group includes the commander of the troops in Iraq who believes that this requires the deployment of thousands of soldiers – and those who, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, think that tougher action against militias close to Iran will bring Tehran back to the negotiating table.
This debate happens when Iran has launched an international campaign to put pressure on Washington. The intention is that President Trump lifts the economic sanctions that are having a great negative impact on the fight against the coronavirus. Iran is one of the countries most affected by a pandemic that has already caused more than 3,200 deaths.
WHO warns of virus risk but political and military rivalry in Baghdad prevents action
Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that, “Iran or its representatives are planning a sneak attack on US troops and assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very high price! “Until then, the President had not decided how to proceed. If he decides to attack, he will have to ask Congress for authorization as Democrats have reminded him in recent days.
“Don’t be fooled again by the usual warriors,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif replied for his part. “Iran does not start wars, but it gives lessons to those who do,” he concluded.
The maximum head of the Iranian military forces, Brigadier General Mohammad Bagheri, assured for his part that Iran is following the situation and that they would defend the territory against the smallest action committed against its integrity. This crossing of messages is the latest chapter in an escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran. Relations hit rock bottom and they’ve been there since on January 3 Trump ordered the assassination of Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani. Iran interpreted that drone strike at Baghdad airport as a declaration of war. The number two of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also died.
This tension has been rising in recent weeks. Some of the Iran-backed militias, particularly Katiba Hizbulah, which until January was led by Al Muhandis, have intensified rocket attacks on bases and buildings with a U.S. presence.
The most serious happened on March 12 when a projectile attack on Taji’s base killed two US and one British officer. The United States held the Katiba Hizbullah accountable and responded with several attacks on places where the men of this militia had a presence. This offensive also claimed the lives of civilians and members of the Iraqi armed forces. The attacks on the Americans, however, eventually were attributed to a new militia called Usabat Al Thairin or League of Revolutionaries.
According to some analysts, this group brings together several of the militias that are supported by Iran and seek the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This objective, which is shared by Tehran, began to become a reality in January when the Iraqi Parliament ordered the government to put everything into motion for the departure of the 5,000 US soldiers who are still in the country. The Pentagon denies that it is withdrawing, but it has argued for a change in strategy, grouping its troops in better-protected bases and abandoning the most vulnerable.
Shiite militias consider this withdrawal to be a victory. It is the “beginning of the defeat for the United States,” said Kata’ib Hezbollah spokeswoman Ali Askari.