It is somewhat unsurprising that the final major event of last year in the Middle East would take place in Iraq.
While the murder of the Syrian people by the Assad regime and their Russian allies remains ongoing in Idlib, this is a continuation of the same tragic tale.
Only in Iraq, however, was there the perfect storm of events and actors that would ultimately lead to the US embassy in Baghdad being stormed and partially set ablaze by pro-Iran militants.
Iran undeterred by US strikes and threats
Events were kicked off by a rocket attack last Friday night against a military base housing American troops and personnel near Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
The attack led to the slaying of an American contractor and the wounding of several US servicemen, drawing Washington’s ire.
The US government laid the blame on the Kataeb Hezbollah (KH) militia, an Iraqi Shia jihadist group that acts as one of the many proxies operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and promised a “decisive response”.
That response came in hard and fast by Sunday evening, with five KH camps across the Iraqi-Syrian border area targeted by US airstrikes leading to at least 25 militants killed with dozens more wounded.
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the deadly strikes were “aimed at deterring Iran and protecting American lives”.
The White House wanted to send a clear and unequivocal message that it was not to be crossed and that it would exact a high price on any who attacked its interests.
Clearly, however, Iran did not get the message or it simply did not care what the US had to say. Following funeral processions for the slain militants on Tuesday, hundreds of activists and militants wearing military fatigues managed to swarm into the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and proceeded to storm the US embassy.
They got part of the way into the secure facility, battered down doors, and set fires around the compound as well as vandalising security cameras before setting up camp outside the embassy in a demonstration they were there to stay.
It is important to note that these were not “protesters”, but militia loyalists. For months, actual Iraqi protesters have come out in their tens of thousands to demonstrate against not only government corruption but also Iranian influence in their country.
Each time they have attempted to enter the Green Zone, they have been violently turned back by Iraqi security forces and allied Shia militias who were only recently accused by Human Rights Watch of grave rights abuses against protesters.
Yet when “protesters” bearing the flags of Hezbollah and wearing military uniforms turned up, security forces stood back and let them waltz all the way up to the US embassy and attack it without so much as a single shot being fired. The reason behind that is obvious and the Iranians and their allies were not even trying to hide it. The agitators were all accompanied by three of Iran’s top made men in Iraq, two of whom are blacklisted by the United States as global terrorists. KH commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Asaib Ahl ul-Haq chief Qais al-Khazali, and Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) leader Faleh al-Fayyadh all attended the attack on the embassy.
Another US embassy debacle in the making?
What this demonstrates is a profound lack of respect for American power, or American will to wield that power. It also demonstrates Iran’s deep influence over the Iraqi security apparatus and also how IRGC proxies were completely undeterred by the US airstrikes. The US used the right tool of a kinetic response but against the wrong targets. Imagine if former Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was walking around out in the open like Khazali and Muhandis, both designated terrorists. Baghdadi would have been bombed into oblivion, yet these two leaders of blacklisted organisations were walking around completely unscathed.
This sent a message that the United States may retaliate against periphery targets somewhere deep in the Iraqi and Syrian desert, but would not risk an all out confrontation with Iran’s proxies by striking at the masterminds of several anti-US operations. This perception was further bolstered by President Donald Trump’s isolationist policies and his penchant for making big threats with little follow through, much to Saudi Arabia’s chagrin when Iran-backed militants recently bombed its vital oil infrastructure with barely an admonishment from the White House.
This has filled Iran and its proxies with confidence, and the last time they felt confidence of this level was during the revolutionary euphoria of 1979 when the Islamic Republic was founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The Carter administration came in for a nasty awakening when militants linked to the ayatollahs besieged and took over the US embassy in Tehran, taking 52 hostages and absolutely hurling a wrecking ball through American prestige in the process.
Trump will not only be keen on avoiding this, but he will also be certain to want to reduce his chances of suffering his very own Benghazi moment, the eastern Libyan city where an American facility was attacked in 2012 leading to the death of an ambassador. Trump was one of the major critics of the Obama administration for that blunder, and so he has now beefed up security by sending in US marines and Apache helicopters.
For the time being protesters have been withdrawn, as their leaders say they wait for the Iraqi parliament to move to remove the foreign presence in Iraq. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the US can protect its embassy and its image in the process. Failure to do so will lead to yet another devastating blow to American prestige around the world, which will in turn lead to further challenges to American power from Russia, China, and particularly Iran in the Middle East.