“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will”, Donald Trump said, in a Tuesday morning tweet.
He continued: “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq”.
This is “fact-teller Trump”, an amusing variant that makes a cameo every now and again, usually after the president has managed to determine cause and effect as it relates to some matter of foreign policy.
— Press TV (@PressTV) December 31, 2019
Trump went on to insist that Tehran “will be held fully responsible”. He also said he expects Iraq to “use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” (You have to love that latter bit – there is zero chance that Trump came up with the phrase “and so notified!”, which means he heard it from somebody on Tuesday and thought it sounded neat.)
Naturally, state television in Iran is pretty excited about this development. Press TV tweeted out a video (above), joining millions of Twitter users in covering the melee.
Eventually, protesters breached the walls and lit some fires before withdrawing and joining thousands of people in a “Death to America” chant outside, where some demonstrators plan to camp. All manner of visuals circulated on social media Tuesday depicting the drama from every conceivable angle.
As The New York Times notes, “protesters’… ability to storm the most heavily guarded zone in Baghdad suggested that they had received at least tacit permission from Iraqi security officials sympathetic to their demands”.
That cuts straight to the only thing that really matters here, which is that while this kind of thing can seem, to everyday Americans, like just another day in a country the US invaded a long time ago, it reflects a fundamental problem with America’s ongoing presence in the country – namely that the State department refuses to acquiesce to the fact that Iraq will be influenced both militarily and politically by the Quds Force (the IRGC’s elite, extra-territorial unit responsible for supporting and running Iran’s proxies in Syria, Yemen and Iraq) in perpetuity.
Tuesday’s protests are, of course, a response to US strikes on Kataib Hezbollah, which the White House blames for a deadly missile attack on a base near Kirkuk. Kataib Hezbollah, along with other Shia militias, was instrumental in the fight against ISIS, but it’s always the same devil’s bargain. Stamping out Sunni extremism (i.e., the ideology espoused by al-Qaeda and ISIS) pretty much requires the assistance of notoriously fearsome Shia fighters, including and especially Hezbollah proper, which, alongside the Russian air force, succeeded in defeating a dizzying hodgepodge of Sunni opposition groups in Syria on the way to restoring Bashar al-Assad. (Kataib also fought in Syria in support of the strongman in Damascus.)
But, the same Shia militias have targeted US forces in Iraq pretty much since the invasion in 2003. Six years later, in 2009, the US designated Kataib Hezbollah a terrorist group.
Kataib Hezbollah is, ultimately, beholden to the Quds. That’s an oversimplification, but you should note that founder Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is an advisor to Quds commander Qassem Soleimani, perhaps the single most dangerous intelligence operative and military commander on the planet, and a veritable bogeyman to the CIA and Israeli intelligence.
Soleimani’s relationship with the US is long, storied and complicated as hell (to speak colloquially), but suffice to say he is a ghost story; a larger-than-life figure in the Mideast. Recently, his fingerprints have shown up on everything from Putin’s intervention in Syria to the infamous kidnapped Qatari falconry party that purportedly helped spark the Qatar embargo in 2017.
One of the ironies of the Trump administration’s “tough on Iran” stance is that the fanfare has arguably strengthened the mythos around Soleimani, an already legendary figure. Last year, he famously traded Game of Thrones memes with Trump.
This episode – i.e., the attacks on the Iraqi military base that killed the US contractor and the retaliatory strikes on Kataib Hezbollah carried out by the US this week – is just another manifestation of this long-running drama.
Although it is exceedingly rare for the US to directly target Soleimani’s proxies, it is not surprising given the standoff between the Trump administration and the regime in Tehran. While this does mark an “escalation” of sorts, you should note that Soleimani has been engaged in a kind of cat- and-mouse game with the US in Iraq for decades. You can’t not deal with him if you’re the US, because, again, ensuring that Sunni extremism remains dormant requires cooperation with powerful Shia elements in Iraq, and Soleimani basically controls all of those elements. But at the same time, he paints targets on the backs of US personnel (both military and otherwise) operating in the country. Again, this has been going on for years.
As far as the embassy incident is concerned, the Trump administration and US lawmakers will doubtlessly use the visuals as an excuse to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran, especially after the recent protests made the regime look weak.
“Iran is directly responsible for orchestrating the storming of the US Embassy in Iraq and must be held accountable for it and the safety of every American serving there”, Marco Rubio said Tuesday, adding that “it’s beyond dispute that these Shia militias in Iraq aren’t just ‘backed’ by Iran, they are directed and controlled by them”.