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Tug of war: In Trump vs. Tehran, Iraqis caught in the middle

by Ace Damon
Tug of war: In Trump vs. Tehran, Iraqis caught in the middle

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The lyrics of a song by a popular Scottish folk-rock band for decades may seem like an unusual and absurdly specific cultural framework through which to view the tensions that have gripped the United States and Iran in recent times.

But for Iraqis, as evidenced by their social media posts, protesters, and statements and testimonies from aid groups, religious figures, and political analysts, Stealers Wheel's 1973 song, "Stuck in the Middle with You," makes a kind of perfect sense.

Since the Trump administration stepped out of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, sanctions and pursuing a "maximum pressure" policy in Tehran that has left the country economically and diplomatically isolated – culminating this week with an Iranian missile attack on two bases in Iraq, home to US troops after the Pentagon killed one of the top commanders. Iranians in a drone strike in the country. – Iraq is at the center of an intensified tug of war between Tehran and Washington, according to Osamah Khalil, US and Middle Eastern foreign historian at Syracuse University.

"Iraq has become a battleground for American and Iranian influence," he said.

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Analyze:Trump moves away from war with Iran, but not over

Of course, some of this is up for grabs.

An American defense contractor was killed in a rocket attack on US troops in late December in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Washington blamed an Iranian-backed group for the attack.

The US struck back with air strikes along the Iraq-Syrian border that killed 25 fighters from Kataeb Hezbollah, a non-state armed militia that is part of the Iranian-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.

Iraqi anti-government protesters display the V sign of victory during a protest in the Shiite city of Karbala in central Iraq on January 10, 2020. Protesters also chanted the US. and slogans from Iran.

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Soon after, angry crowds of pro-Iranian protesters invaded the US Embassy in Baghdad, singing "Death to America". Washington said the siege was orchestrated by Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, whom the Pentagon later killed in the drone strike near an airport in Baghdad, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the People's Mobilization Forces.

Four members of Iraqi military wounded on Sunday in rocket attack targeting an air base north of Baghdad where US trainers were present until recently, Iraqi security officials said.

Voting:Americans Say Soleimani's Murder Made the US Less Safe, Trump & # 39; Reckless & # 39; in Iran

"#Iran wants #US out of # Iraq / The US wants Iran out of Iraq / How about we (Iraqis) leave, we may be bothering you," tweeted Hayder Al-Shakeri, summing up the exasperation that some Iraqis feel. According to his online and social media profiles, Al-Shakeri is from Baghdad and works in development, helping to coordinate regional cooperation programs in the Arab states. He was not found for an interview.

Another twitter user, "@mendlusi" shared a video by an Iraqi journalist who appeared to show an Iraqi in Baghdad "weeping for the pain Iraqis suffered at the hands of the government, foreign governments and militias."

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In recent months, more than 400 Iraqis have been killed and nearly 20,000 injured, according to the United Nationsin protests in Baghdad and Iraqi cities.

Among its claims: the end of widespread corruption that precipitated a dysfunctional economy, rampant unemployment and ineffective governance.

Tug of war: In Trump vs. Tehran, Iraqis caught in the middle

They also want to stop the exaggerated influence of Iraqi armed Shiite groups, such as the People's Mobilization Forces, closely aligned with Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has already resigned and is in the role of janitor, should meet Soleimani on the day the Iranian commander was killed in the attack on the US drones, according to Mahdi's own admissions to your country's parliament.

Following the assassination of Soleimani, Mahdi, a Shiite who has close ties with Iran, led and won a non-binding vote in Iraq's parliament. urging the expulsion of US troops from Iraq. On Friday, Mahdi asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to begin formulating a plan for the withdrawal of US troops. The Trump Administration rejected the idea and warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York expelling US troops from the region, according to a report.

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"The United States is a force for good in the Middle East," said State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus. "Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against (the Islamic State terrorist group) and, as the secretary said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis and our coalition partners," he said.

Still, thousands of Iraqis gathered across the country on Friday in protests against the government, where they also sang criticism of the United States and Iran.

"Iraq has been suffering proxy wars for decades; they have destroyed our country," said Bashar Matti Warda, a Chaldean Catholic cleric and current Archbishop of Erbil in Kurdish Iraq. Chaldean Catholicism, originating in the Eastern Church, is a form of Christianity found in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region.

A young girl holds a poster of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani while taking part in an anti-US protest against the death of the top Iranian commander in Iraq on January 12, 2020.

Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Al-Bayan Center, a Baghdad-based public policy think tank that focuses on issues related to Iraq and the region, said Iraq "does not want to be in one camp or the other. Iran will always be our neighbor. But we recognize that the US is a superpower. "

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Jiyad said that prior to the implementation of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy, the country was not so caught in the middle between Tehran and Washington and that anti-Americanism increased.

"Our policy has also taken on a strong anti-American voice," he added, referring to the Iraqi parliament vote to try to push US forces out of the country.

Tug of war: In Trump vs. Tehran, Iraqis caught in the middle

While the war in Iraq officially ended in 2011, when former President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of US combat troops 17 years after the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's government, Iraq remains in a fragile state.

About 5,000 US and coalition troops were relocated to combat the Islamic State terrorist organization, a Sunni extremist group that capitalized on the chaos unleashed in Iraq by the US invasion and later the civil war in neighboring Syria.

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Across the Middle East region, the US has more than 62.00 troops deployed in various countries, from NATO member Turkey to the tiny state of the Gulf of Bahrain.

Iraq and Iran share nearly 900 miles of borders and Iraq relies heavily on Iran for its energy supply. Iraq's many armed militias are often closer to Iran than to the Iraqi government – making it potentially dangerous to alienate Tehran. A US withdrawal could pave the way for a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

It would be a "gift for ISIS," said Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., A member of the Foreign Relations Committee, using an acronym for the terrorist organization.

Washington's current with the crisis in Iran has put Iraq "in the eye of the storm" at the worst possible time, said Abbas Kadhim, head of the Atlantic Council's initiative in Iraq and a former Iraqi diplomat.

The current prime minister is leaving office and the current government is operating with "truncated authorities," Kadhim noted at a foreign policy forum in Washington on Thursday. The population is divided and the leaders are struggling to chart a way forward amid a political crisis.

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Now they are dealing with a cycle of confrontation between the US and Iran that has left Iraq divided between two important allies, he said.

Andres Gonzalez Rodriguez, Iraqi director for the humanitarian group Oxfam, said in an e-mailed statement that due to the recent increase in Iran-US friction in Iraq, "we had to suspend work at three locations where we were delivering. money helps people who need help. If we need to continue the suspension for a few more weeks, 100,000 of the most vulnerable people will be affected. "

Rodriguez said Oxfam, whose aid reaches more than one million people in Iraq, specializes in water and sanitation, emergency food, money and gender programs and protective work.

At the beginning of Wednesday, local time, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq that host US and other troops, in what appears to have been a carefully calibrated response to Soleimani's murder. No one was killed in the strikes.

Iran strike:A high alert and an offer to slow the climb, sources say

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President Donald Trump said Iran "seems to be moving away" and suggested that the United States and Iran could work toward a new nuclear deal while cooperating against militants. Few foreign affairs experts see this as a likely result of increased friction.

More:Trump warns Iran, but says the US is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.

Al-Bayan Center's Jiyad said Iraq understands that the US can be a useful partner in the region in terms of fighting the Islamic State terrorist group, "but we don't want to be part of a pro-Iran political game. or pro-US The most important thing for us is to maintain good relations with all countries. "

Saeed Jamil al-Hadidiyah lives near the area where an Iranian bomb fell in Bardarash, Iraq.

Still, for Saeed Jamil al-Hadidiyah, 59, and his family, who live on a farm where they work as shepherds near where one of the missiles that Iran fired at a base in Kurdish Iraq landed, such political arguments make no sense.

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"We don't understand why Iran is attacking us. What we did to them," he said on Thursday, showing the US TODAY the damage to his home.

The missile landed about 600 meters from the house he shares with 14 other members of his family. The youngest is a 6 month old baby. None were injured in the attack, but the house suffered roof damage and some windows were broken.

"We know there are tensions between Iran and the US, but why are they shooting at us?"

Contributing: Younes …

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