When several rockets hit Al-Assad Air Base on July 7, the bombardment was just the latest in a recent round of tit-for-tat air attacks across Iraq.
The strike, which reportedly injured two US service members at the airbase, came hot on the heels of a drone attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
That attack came just two days after a rocket strike on a US base in Anbar province – and a week after the US carried out airstrikes against alleged drone and rocket facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
It’s now clear that Iraq is becoming a key and intensifying battleground in the complex rivalry between Washington and Tehran.
In this, “The rockets and airstrikes are just the most visible part of the battle,” Sarkawt Shamsaldin, a member of the Iraqi Parliament for the Kurdistan Hope Alliance, told Asia Times. “Beneath them lies a whole conflict that is now preventing the Iraqi state itself from functioning.”
This covert conflict between Iran and the US has impacted everything from the country’s parliament to its power grid, its fragmented politics to its water supply.
Meanwhile, conditions for ordinary Iraqis continue to deteriorate in the sweltering summer heat – Baghdad hit 47C on Wednesday.
“People get two or three hours of electricity a day from the grid,” says Shamsaldin, “and there are water shortages, nationwide.”
This in a country with the world’s 5th largest oil reserves and two of the region’s greatest rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates.
“The state is failing,” Kawa Hassan, senior fellow and director of the Stimson Center’s MENA program, told Asia Times. “Iraqis have no confidence in any of the groups running the country today, whether they are pro-US or pro-Iranian. They are just tired, fed up and exhausted.”
That exhaustion last led to major street protests in the summer of 2019, also triggered by the collapse of basic public services such as power and water.
A new, technocratic government under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi was sworn in last year as a result, promising to tackle endemic corruption and bring much-needed reform.
Yet Al-Khadimi has been largely unsuccessful at fulfilling these promises – with one major obstacle being the Iraqi parliament, which remains deeply divided, blocking any major changes.
Within the assembly, many groups represent armed militias, with the largest of these irregular armies the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
This is a coalition of mostly Shiite armed groups, established to fight Islamic State (ISIS) when it surged across the country back in 2014.
Some of the PMF’s militias are directly under Iranian control; others are more loosely affiliated.
The US airstrikes on June 27, for example, targeted facilities used by two PMF-affiliated militias, Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
The second of these is closely tied to the pro-Iranian Badr Organization, an official Iraqi political party with 22 seats in parliament.
“The PMF militias are now more powerful than ever,” Bayar Mustafa, from the American University in Erbil, told Asia Times. “They are states within a state, taking a huge share of the budget and yet with no obligation or accountability to the government.”
Previously, the militias had largely been unified under the direction of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force – the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ overseas wing.
His killing in a US drone strike in January 2020, however, “meant the militias were not controlled so easily,” says Mustafa. “The people who replaced him do not have the same leverage over the armed groups.”
Soleimani’s assassination, therefore, ramped up the chaos, with militia groups vying to avenge his death and that of PMF deputy commander Abu Madhi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same US drone strike.
On July 5, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada commander Abu Alaa al-Walae told the Associated Press, “We want… an operation in which everyone says they have taken revenge on the Americans… It’s an open war.”
Attacks are taking various forms, including hits on crucial infrastructure.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve seen militias which had been hired as security companies attacking electricity stations,” says Mustafa. “Before that, they bombed and destroyed a water facility supplying half of Baghdad.”
These attacks give the groups stronger political leverage – in parliament and on the street – while also making Iraq more dependent on Iran, which supplies natural gas and electricity to Iraq.
“They don’t tell you this is the reason they are making these attacks,” says Shamsaldin, “but this is what’s actually happening.”
Meanwhile, other groups in the Iraqi parliament and government take a more pro-US line.
Yet, “This is largely the old guard brought in by the US occupation,” says Shamsaldin. “They installed these people even though they knew they were corrupt, tolerating them because they would fight against al Qaeda or Islamic State.”
The result has been a government and state that many Iraqis see as acting more in the interests of foreign nations than their own.
“Confidence in the legitimacy of the Iraqi state is at an all-time low,” says Hassan. “The Iranian-US conflict is not the war of the Iraqi people, who just want a functioning government capable of delivering basic services, stability and some reforms.”
Calls for change from Iraqi civil society and street protests have, however, often been met with a violent response from the state and the militias.
“The killing of activists and protestors without any recourse to the law has impacted the protest movement that there was in 2019,” Hassan adds. “They are fighting against a well-entrenched elite with no interest in accountability.”
Chance of change
For some, early elections called for October may be a way to bring some much-needed change.
Yet there are also widespread doubts over whether the elections – brought forward after the 2019 protests from April 2022 – will happen at all.
“I don’t think the Iraqi government can uphold this early elections pledge,” says Mustafa.
In his AP interview, Abu Alaa al-Walae also said that he did not expect the elections to take place, due to the country’s “deep crisis.”
For Shamsaldin, however, “We need elections so that the true voice of the Iraqi people can be heard.”
Whether that voice will be loud enough to carry over the sounds of drones, missiles and airstrikes, however, remains to be seen.