After US forces came under attack in Iraq on October 17, a previously unknown militant group emerged to take credit for the drone strikes on two military bases and warned of future attacks.
The incidents marked the first time that the US had been directly targeted over Washington’s support for Israel’s war on Hamas that was triggered by the deadly assault by Gaza-based militants.
Since then, the Islamic Resistance of Iraq has claimed almost two dozen further attacks that have targeted US installations in both Iraq and Syria, injuring dozens of US troops. Washington has struck back once in eastern Syria, with officials also warning of further action.
“We reserve the right to respond . . . at a time and place of our choosing,” said a senior US defence official, underscoring the risks of a spillover conflict that could draw Washington in further and engulf the wider region.
The attacks inside Iraq underline US fears that as it continues to give public support to Israel, its troops deployed in the Middle East face the risk of escalating attacks by militant groups armed and supported by Iran.
Iraq is a particular cause for concern because of the presence of Iranian-backed militant groups who have become the dominant political and military forces in the country. There are also about 2,500 US troops deployed in Iraq to train its security forces and assist in the fight against Isis.
Iraq’s prime minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani has expressed unwavering support of the Palestinian people and condemned Israel for its fierce bombardment of Gaza, echoing anger expressed across the Muslim world and beyond. Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets of the capital Baghdad and other cities to protest.
Behind the scenes, however, Sudani has walked a tightrope, attempting to balance domestic criticism of Baghdad’s security partnership with the US while trying to contain any further escalation from those aligned more closely with Iran, according to Iraqi officials and people with knowledge of his thinking.
“There’s real concern about the widening scope of this war,” said Farhad Alaaldin, Sudani’s foreign affairs adviser. “We enjoy good relations with both Washington and Tehran, and we want that to continue.”
“The priority of this government and our security forces is to protect Iraq and make sure we stay out of this conflict.”
As Israel has this week stepped up its assault on Gaza by deploying ground forces, Iran-backed militant groups have escalated their attacks on Israeli positions.
Israel on Tuesday said it had intercepted a missile fired towards the southern city of Eilat, an attack claimed by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebel movement that controls northern Yemen.
There were also two further attacks on Tuesday that targeted Iraqi bases housing US and international forces. A senior Hamas official recently told the Financial Times that the militant group interpreted US moves to deploy carrier strike groups, air-defence systems and thousands of troops to the region as overly muscular, a line privately echoed by its allies.
President Joe Biden’s administration has already ordered all non-emergency US government personnel and family members to leave Iraq in a sign of a rapidly deteriorating security situation. Defense secretary Lloyd Austin has also warned that “what we’re seeing is the prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region”.
More than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Hamas-run territory, according to the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza. More than 1,400 people died in Hamas’s bloody October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war, according to Israeli officials.
In the weeks since, Iraq’s political and militia leaders have renewed their calls for Sudani’s government to oust the foreign troops based in the country. Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shia cleric, has also called for the US embassy in Baghdad to be closed down.
Sudani has condemned the attacks on US installations in his talks with the Biden administration and pledged to pursue the groups responsible. “The government has been clear that it will go after these groups and the rule of law will be enforced,” Alaaldin said.
But few believe he can do so. More than 20 years on from the US invasion of Iraq, the dominant political forces in the country are aligned to armed Shia militant groups, many of which have strong ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. These include some leading figures in the governing coalition which backs Sudani.
Iraqi premiers have proved unable to rein in the militias’ mounting influence since they rose to prominence nearly a decade ago, when they mounted a collective defence against Islamic State militants.
Since then, the groups have further entrenched themselves within state institutions, funnelling state resources to their vast patronage networks. Some of them are now formally part of Iraq’s state security forces.
Successive governments have been unable to hold them to account for the litany of crimes attributed to them including wartime human rights violations and the kidnapping and killing of protesters, activists and foreigners.
While some of the militia groups are well established, others operate in the shadows, such as the newly created Islamic Resistance of Iraq. These groups, tied to the so-called Axis of Resistance, are deemed to be fronts for more established Iran-backed paramilitary forces that are deeply embedded in the state such as the Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, whose leader met a Hamas delegation in Iraq on Sunday to discuss developments in Gaza.
“While certain groups are more Iraq-focused, groups like Kata’ib Hizbollah, and Harakat al-Nujaba, don’t always believe in national borders,” said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Chatham House think-tank.
These groups were “inherently transnational”, he explained, and could be deployed anywhere in the region to further the needs of opaque leaderships aligned with Tehran or Shia interests.
So far, analysts and officials say, the attacks against US forces appear designed to maintain deterrence rather than signal a broader confrontation.
“The type of violence we’ve seen so far, is par for the course. These attacks have not been designed to kill,” Mansour said. “But the question for them becomes: when and what does escalation look like?”