Trump Bid to Curb Iran Falters After Baghdad Embassy Attack
U.S. President Donald J. Trump gestures during the Friends of Ireland Luncheon at the U.S Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Bid to Curb Iran Falters After Baghdad Embassy Attack

(Bloomberg) -- Only a day after U.S. officials boasted that anti-Iranian protests in Iraq signaled a grassroots rebellion against Tehran’s influence, Washington has become the focus of anger instead.

Dozens of Iraqi militiamen stormed the U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad Tuesday to protest deadly U.S. airstrikes against their Iranian-backed forces. President Donald Trump tweeted that Tehran fomented the confrontation and urged Iraqis “who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran” to rise up.

But Iraqi leaders and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric have criticized the American strikes last weekend as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty. The turnaround in sentiment raised new doubts about the Trump administration’s strategy to curb Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East by enforcing tough sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Trump Bid to Curb Iran Falters After Baghdad Embassy Attack

The U.S. strikes, which came as retaliation for rocket assaults that killed an American contractor, “triggered a strong criticism of Washington’s troop presence and influence in Iraq,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group. “The demonstrations and attacks on the U.S. embassy signal the beginning of a wave of Iranian-supported efforts to make the U.S. presence in Iraq less viable.”

Hours after the attack, as protesters remained camped outside the compound in Baghdad, Trump tweeted that the embassy “is, & has been for hours, SAFE!” He said that “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities.”

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE!” he said. “This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”

Iran and the U.S. have long competed for influence in Iraq. But Iran has advantages from its proximity as a neighbor that, like Iraq, has a Shiite majority. Iran arms and influences Kataieb Hezbollah, the militia attacked in the U.S. airstrikes, but Iraq also has made the group a recognized part of its army.

Since October, though, Iran’s standing has been challenged by protests. Iraqis demonstrating against government corruption, poor services and a devastated economy also have chanted denunciations of Iran’s political influence.

“The action at the embassy just accentuates how much the U.S. strikes have turned what had looked like an anti-Iran protest story in Iraq into an anti-U.S. story,” said Paul Pillar, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer and a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington.

Trump Bid to Curb Iran Falters After Baghdad Embassy Attack

In the hours after the violent protest at the U.S. compound, which didn’t breach the embassy itself, the Pentagon dispatched two Apache helicopters to fly over in a show of force, and about 100 Marines already in the region were ordered to the embassy to reinforce its defenses, U.S. officials said.

On Tuesday night, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement that some 750 members of the Immediate Response Force, part of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, would “deploy to the region immediately, and additional forces from the IRF are prepared to deploy over the next several days.”

Esper didn’t say say where, exactly, the troops would be sent.

The developments underscored that the Trump administration’s efforts to downsize its military presence in Iraq are being disrupted by the reality on the ground in the oil-producing nation.

The day before Tuesday’s attack on the embassy compound, State Department officials told reporters that the death of an American required a show of force to demonstrate that Trump’s “strategic patience” with Iran had its limits. They said they had unsuccessfully pressed Iraqi officials to curb attacks on American bases by the Iranian-backed militias.

They also boasted that Iran, not the U.S., was the target of anger in the streets of Iraq.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s Iran envoy, said the region was “rising up” against Iranian dominance.

“You had protests all over Iraq and Lebanon,” Hook said Monday in a telephone briefing for reporters. “None of them were directed at the United States. These are people that are rejecting the Iranian model that they have been exporting for some time, and people are tired of the corruption, of the lack of transparency, of having their national wealth stolen to finance proxy wars.”

Critics countered that the latest developments showed Trump’s policy in the region -- pulling out of the multinational nuclear accord with Iran while bolstering the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- has failed.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said on Twitter that “the attacks on our embassy in Iraq (and Iraq’s unwillingness to defend us) is -- on this last day of 2019 -- a reminder of how catastrophic this year has been for U.S. interests in every corner of the Middle East.”

Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics goes back to the era of Saddam Hussein, the country’s longtime Sunni dictator. Many in Iraq’s Shiite majority fled across the border into Iran to escape imprisonment, execution and torture. Hussein also brought the U.S. into Iraq’s troubled history: American forces invaded to oust him in 2003 and returned later to combat Islamic State terrorists.

The latest developments are only likely to deepen fault lines in the country, according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

He predicted “a groundswell in favor of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq against the backdrop of the protests with slogans calling for a recovery of the homeland.” That demand “is more clear-cut when it comes to the Americans as opposed to the Iranians, where the lines with what is Iraqi sovereign authority are more blurred,” Dorsey said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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