The Pentagon is worried that attacks on Iran-linked targets could damage its relationship with Baghdad. But what does the White House want?
A recent series of suspected Israeli strikes inside Iraq could end the American nation-building project that began with the 2002 invasion — or show the limits of the Trump administration’s campaign to constrain Iran.
In the last month, attacks on Iran-linked weapons depots and militia convoys in Iraq — as well on targets across Syria and Lebanon — have suggested that Israel has launched a new front in its shadow war with Iran. The strikes mark the first known attacks by Israel on Iraq since 1981, though its forces have carried out hundreds of such attacks in Syria and Lebanon over the last seven years. In Baghdad, where a burgeoning nationalist faction in domestic politics has for months been pushing for the removal of U.S. troops, some groups have blamed Washington. Although it doesn’t appear that the United States provided any support to the striking forces, Israel is a close U.S. ally, and at least appears to be helping the Trump administration “push back” on Iran.
Pentagon leaders see the U.S. relationship with Iraq as a strategic berm in the troubled region, raising the question of what short-term tactical gains from a strike would be worth damaging that relationship. The Defense Department has fiercely denied carrying out the attacks. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that he was concerned about “anything that may impact our mission, our relationship, or our forces” in Iraq.
But across the river, where the White House has made constraining Iran its top regional goal, the tone has been very different. Administration officials, speaking anonymously, have pinned the blame on Iran. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence touted a “great conversation” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The United State fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself from imminent threats,” Pence tweeted. “Under President @realDonaldTrump, America will always stand with Israel!”
“Could there be backlash? Yes,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in the military and security affairs of Iraq and travels often to Baghdad. “It could seriously damage the U.S. coalition position inside Iraq. But the question is whether the U.S. really cares that much about being removed from Iraq.”
Israel has long sought to disrupt the spread of Iranian weapons to proxies who could strike Israel. Tel Aviv says Tehran is trying to establish a land-based supply line through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Israel fought a brief war with the Iran-linked militia-and-political party in 2006.) In particular, Israel worries about long-range missiles and anti-aircraft defenses.
Israel has repeatedly demonstrated that it can find and destroy Iranian targets in Lebanon and western Syria. But the strikes in Iraq are a significant escalation, analysts say — one that likely reflects both domestic politics in Israel, maturing military capabilities, and perhaps tacit support from Washington.
“What’s very significant is that Israel has demonstrated that it has fine grain insight into the movement and operations of the Iranian proxies in Iraq, and that it has the reach to actually strike those targets successfully,” Knights said. “Clearly over the last couple years, it has been developing the technology to reach into Western and Northeastern Iraq, right up to Iranian border, and strike with great precision.”
The nature of targets themselves is also an open question that could explain the new campaign, says Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Reports that Iran had parked weapons in Iraq’s western Anbar province in 2018 “likely impacted Israel's tolerance for risk.”
"As Iran began to transfer weapons to Iran-backed militias in western Iraq, I believe the Israeli calculus began to change,” Taleblu said. “They may have realized that no matter how successful strikes in Syria are, they would only be mowing the lawn if they did not stem the source of these transfers.”
Some analysts believe that Netanyahu approved the strikes to buttress his tough-on-Iran campaign platform and help win re-election on Sept. 17. Last January, he began publicly acknowledging strikes on Iranian weapons in Syria; more recently he has hinted that Israel is responsible for the Iraq attacks.
What About Washington?
It remains an open question how much support for the strikes Washington has given Israel, if any. The Pentagon has robustly denied any involvement. Officials have noted that they lack authority over Iraqi skies, and emphasized that U.S. troops are in Iraq at the invitation of the government solely to fight ISIS.
But Trump stirred controversy in Baghdad in February when he said that he wanted to use troops stationed in Iraq to “watch Iran.”
While it is not clear that the Trump administration has done anything to encourage the Israelis, it’s equally unclear that it has sought to discourage them, either. Despite rhetoric about “pushing back” on Iran, the Trump administration has so far relied on choking sanctions and maritime patrols to box in Tehran. Most of the kinetic activity has been carried out by U.S. allies in the region like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford said Wednesday that additional forces sent to the region in recent months to deter Iran “hasn’t had a material effect on the actual capacity of the Iranian forces or their proxies.”
“The Americans have the incentive to look the other way,” Taleblu said, since the strikes “accomplish a goal the U.S. wants to accomplish: rolling back Iran's regional influence and eroding its freedom of maneuver.”
To some analysts, the uncertainty reflects an apparent divide within the Trump administration on how to handle what it has termed Iranian “malign activities” in Iraq. According to Knights, there is a growing awareness amongst Iraqi lawmakers that a U.S. presence in the country is not a foregone conclusion under the Trump administration, especially at the expense of the administration’s hardline Iran policy.
“This administration is of two minds,” Knights said. Although the Pentagon still sees Iraq as an important security partner in the region, there is part of the administration that thinks, “Iraq already lost to Iran so why are we wasting our time?” he said.
A Fraught Relationship
The Trump administration has pressed Baghdad to crack down on Iran-aligned militias that helped fight ISIS.
But those groups are deeply intertwined in the Iraqi political system. Many of them are associated with political parties represented in parliament and some of have been incorporated into the Iraqi military as so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces.” Hinting at the complexity of unraveling the militias from Iraq’s political system is the fact that the PMF groups are on the military’s payroll, which receives security assistance from the United States. Privately, Pentagon leaders often acknowledge that straining all Iranian influence from Iraq, with which it shares a border, is unlikely.
There is a simmering movement in Iraq to kick the Americans out of the country, lead by the nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. (Sadr’s faction is also opposed to Iranian influence in the country.) But Baghdad is also worried about a nascent resurgence of ISIS — a resurgence that it would likely need U.S. support to suppress — and so, at least for now, the sovereignty movement has stopped short of forcing a U.S. departure.
How long the United States will be able to look the other way while Israel continues to strike Iraq depends on how the Iraqis respond, both Taleblu and Knights said. So far, Sadr has encouraged his followers to remain focused on disarming the militias that aren’t under state control. But public opinion could shift if the strikes continue.
“The X-factor is the Iraqi response,” said Taleblu. “As Israel expands targeting into Iraq, it likely means the U.S. will have thread a needle based on how the Iraqi government wants to respond.”
Knights said he expects the crisis to “fizzle out.”
“Eventually, the U.S. is probably going to have a word with the Israelis and the Israelis will feel a bit more pressure to wind it down,” he said, suggesting they are hitting as many targets as they can now. “That’s how all of their wars have been fought: get their licks in quickly before the international community shuts down the fighting.”
The alternative, Taleblu said — that the U.S. is asked to leave Iraq — would be “devastating.”