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As Iraq PM heads to US, pro-Iran groups step up attacks

Filed on August 18, 2020 | Last updated on August 18, 2020 at 12.34 pm
Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa, Al Kadhemi
Members of the Iraqi pro-Iranian Hashed Al Shaabi group and protesters set ablaze a sentry box in front of the US embassy building in Baghdad.

(AFP file)

Between August 4 and August 16, 13 bomb and rocket attacks targeted Iraqi logistics convoys for the US military, bases housing US soldiers and the US embassy

As Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi prepares for his first meeting with US President Donald Trump this week, attacks on American targets by pro-Iranian fighters have been on the rise.

With Tehran and Washington competing for influence in Iraq, the gulf between pro-Iranian factions and Baghdad's US-friendly premier is growing.

When Kadhemi meets Trump on Thursday for the first time, the top agenda for the Iraqi leader is the presence of 5,000 US troops deployed in his country.

Kadhemi, who took office in May, faces challenges from factions of the Hashed Al Shaabi, a coalition of Iraqi Shia paramilitary groups with close ties to Iran.

The Hashed Al Shaabi is integrated into the Iraqi state, and its political representatives have called for the expulsion of US troops.

Pro-Iranian factions were hit hard by Washington's assassination in January of one of their top chiefs, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, in a strike that also killed top Iranian commander General Qasem Soleimani.

The Hashed denies any connection to a recent spate of anti-US attacks, but videos and claims on social media hint at its involvement, through groups operating under other names.

"The personnel that make up the new militias are most likely pulled from the membership of pre-existing armed groups that make up the Hashed al-Shaabi," said Ramzy Mardini, from The Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago.

Kadhemi - far closer to Washington than his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki - has angered armed groups by seizing border posts where they ran lucrative smuggling networks and imposed taxes on traders.

Attacks have risen in recent weeks.

From October to the end of July, Iraqi armed factions carried out 39 rocket attacks against American interests in the country.

But after the White House earlier this month confirmed that Trump would meet Kadhemi on Thursday, the pace intensified.

Between August 4 and August 16, 13 bomb and rocket attacks targeted Iraqi logistics convoys for the US military, bases housing US soldiers and the US embassy.

While the impact has been limited, the attacks have served as a show of strength.

After an attack on a convoy in Iraq's south, a man was arrested in possession of bombs and a Hashed military ID card that allowed him to cross checkpoints without a search, an intelligence source told AFP.

Some attacks have been carried out by groups with other names including the "League of Revolutionaries".

"They operate under new banners to mask and protect the established militia leadership from facing possible retaliation," Mardini said.

"If these groups are operating outside the government, Baghdad is less likely to be held responsible and punished by Washington," he added.

But by increasing the number of attacks, it also sends a signal to Kadhemi that he cannot prevent attacks simply by raids and arrests against the militias.

At the end of June, 14 fighters from the Hezbollah Brigades, a Hashed faction, were arrested for attacks on Americans.

Three days later, 13 were released on the decision of a Hashed military judge.

For many Iraqis, the spate of violence increasingly reminds them of the militants attacks against US forces following the 2003 invasion.

Their videos appear to echo the propaganda produced by Al Qaeda and the Daesh group, with slick special effects and religious songs.

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