The Iraq Report: Biden orders airstrikes on militias

Members of Iraq's PMF march in a symbolic funerary parade in Baghdad on 29 June, 2021, in remembrance of those killed in a recent US raid. [Getty]
7 min read
29 June, 2021
US airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias call into question Iraqi sovereignty, as the nation grapples with public discontent over issues such as corruption and poor service provision.

On 27 June, the US struck Iraqi Shia militias for the second time since President Joe Biden took office after the Iran-sponsored groups continued their rocket attacks on military bases housing American troops. 

While the impact of these attacks has been limited so far, it has triggered anger from leaders in Baghdad who deem Washington's unilateral moves a breach of Iraqi sovereignty.

Meanwhile, and in an attempt to appear to be in a position to alleviate some of the woes faced by the Iraqi people, the federal government has recently announced a raft of new clean energy measures to diversify Iraq's energy grid away from fossil fuels and reliance on importing its power needs from neighbouring countries, particularly Iran.

However, with Iraq's instability caused by terrorist organisations, corrupt politicians, and foreign powers using Iraqi territory as an arena to settle scores, it is highly unlikely that these efforts will come to fruition until Baghdad grapples with these systemic and grave problems.

"Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi slammed the US airstrikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty"

US strikes Shia militias after rocket attacks

US President Joe Biden authorised a series of deadly airstrikes on Sunday only a week after Shia militias linked to regional power Iran launched rockets against Iraqi military bases housing US troops.

The US airstrikes targeted Iraqi Shia jihadist groups affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in the Iraq-Syria border area, triggering a series of angry remarks from not only the militias affected but also the Iraqi government.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi slammed the US airstrikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, pledging that his government would consider its "legal options" to prevent the US from repeating similar attacks in the future.

For its part, the White House issued a communique stating that the US had the right to "self-defence" and that President Biden was exercising its rights under domestic law to protect US personnel abroad.

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The militias targeted included Kataib Hezbollah, a group designated as a terrorist organisation by the US government, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Both militant organisations are supported by Iran and are integral component militias of the PMF.

The PMF held a funeral on Tuesday morning for the four militants killed, parading empty caskets in a Baghdad funeral procession attended by high-level politicians and security personnel.

The PMF is an umbrella organisation of mostly pro-Iran Shia militias, founded in 2014 after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a call to arms against the Islamic State group. Since then, the PMF has been formally recognised as a branch of the Iraqi armed forces.

The US claimed that the airstrikes were in response to these militias firing rockets at bases housing American soldiers and because they continued to deploy drones packed with explosives in suicide missions.

"On one hand, the PMF as a whole is under the authority of Kadhimi as commander-in-chief. On the other, the component militias often act on their own initiative while using the PMF's authority"

US justification and Iranian influence

The Washington Post reported last month that Iran-made drones were used earlier this year by Tehran's proxies to attack installations used by the CIA, the US' most prominent spy agency.

However, by bombing component militias of the PMF, the US has effectively launched an armed attack against the Iraqi armed forces, technically an act of war under international law.

This has understandably caused confusion. On one hand, the PMF as a whole is under the authority of Kadhimi as commander-in-chief. On the other, the component militias often act on their own initiative while using the PMF's authority, or even take direct orders from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The US will likely seek to argue that, not only did they attack designated terrorist organisations in self-defence, but that at the material time of the airstrikes the militias had gone rogue and were not formally part of the Iraqi chain of command.

This will provide a dual layer of insulation, firstly by justifying US actions and secondly by protecting the Iraqi political system that Washington created when it toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 from allegations of supporting terrorist organisations.

Clearly, this presents further irony in that part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq was Saddam's alleged links and support to Al-Qaeda which was found to be a total fabrication, along with allegations that his regime had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Iraqis take part in an anti-American protest in Baghdad in 2008. [Getty]
Iraqis take part in an anti-American protest in Baghdad in 2008. [Getty]

Formal Iraqi protestations against US violations of Iraqi sovereignty will also likely not find much sympathy, as the ruling elite in Iraq today were themselves installed into office by the Americans when the US violated Iraqi sovereignty and deposed the Baathist regime.

It appears that the White House was intending to send a clear and unequivocal message. But this message was not to the Iraqis, but to the Iranians who control these groups.

Both the Biden administration and the incoming Ebrahim Raisi administration in Tehran both seek to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and both countries are using Iraq as a sparring ground to gain increased leverage in the negotiations that are ongoing thousands of miles away in Vienna.

The revival of the nuclear deal may go some way in dampening tensions and conflict between the two powers in Iraq, but it will not make the violence stop altogether. After all, when the JCPOA was first signed in 2015, it actually provided an impetus for Iran to pursue a more muscular foreign policy and ramped up its activities across the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The solution to Iraq's problems, therefore, are unlikely to be resolved by a better relationship between Iran and the US, but will need to be domestically produced through political settlement that detaches Iraqi national priorities from the interests of powerful states.

"Despite being OPEC's second largest oil producer with vast stockpiles of oil and natural gas, Iraq is almost entirely dependent on neighbouring Iran's power grid to keep the lights on"

Iraq's electricity crises driving desire for clean energy

One of the main problems Iraqi authorities face is a lack of domestic faith in their policies and in the services they provide, leading to internal instability, protests, deadly violence, and increasing calls to boycott elections due to be held in October.

A repeated complaint from the Iraqi public since 2003 has been the state of Iraq's chronically unreliable electricity grid, with the lack of power particularly in the sweltering summer months causing explosions of angry demonstrations on the streets of major Iraqi cities.

Despite being OPEC's second-largest oil producer with vast stockpiles of oil and natural gas, Iraq is almost entirely dependent on neighbouring Iran's power grid to keep the lights on – a situation that triggers public fury.

To address the chronic blackouts - often leading to many Iraqi cities receiving only four hours of electricity per day - Baghdad has explored a number of renewable energy solutions to diversify away from fossil fuels and its unreliable energy infrastructure that has not been revamped since the US-led alliance bombed it during the war over Kuwait in 1991.

The Iraqi nuclear power regulator announced earlier this month that it would seek $40bn in loans to finance eight nuclear reactors built by Russian and South Korean contractors capable of producing 11 gigawatts combined.

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Late last week, the Iraqi electricity ministry inked a deal with UAE-owned clean energy giant Masdar to develop Iraq's solar energy capabilities to supply at least an additional two gigawatts of power.

Masdar announced that it would develop solar panel farms to exploit the abundant Iraqi sunshine in central and southern Iraq. This is likely because these areas are deemed to be more secure than the western Anbar desert, which would have been the most logical site for solar energy production.

However, there are inherent dangers and risks involved in Iraq's ambitious renewable energy plans.

Firstly, solar energy farms are notoriously exposed to the risk of mortar or rocket fire as the solar panels need to be exposed to the open sky to function. Even perimeter defences would not necessarily work as militias and terrorist groups have munitions that can travel dozens of kilometres.

Secondly, the proposed 11 gigawatts produced by nuclear power would need to be greatly supplemented by additional energy sources. Iraq's energy generation stood at 19 gigawatts as of 2019, but most of that has been lost due to a number of factors.

Currently, Iraq's power consumption demand is edging on 30 gigawatts during hot summer months, and the grid loses 52% of its power due to poor system design, electricity theft, and an inefficient and ageing grid.

Furthermore, energy consumption is expected to rise by an additional 50% by the end of the decade, meaning that Iraq is trying to play catch up without addressing the fundamental problems plaguing the power grid.

Without a comprehensive overhaul of Iraq's infrastructure, even the latest renewable energy resources will not be able to plug the gap in demand which will inevitably lead Iraqis to wonder why their government spent billions on technologies they will likely see little benefit from.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab

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