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Iraq caught in the middle of US-Iran face-off

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Scarred by two decades of conflict, Iraq finds itself caught in the middle of a US-Iranian tug-of-war, fearing it could pay the price of any confrontation between its two main allies.

Analysts say third parties may seek to exploit the latest spike in tensions between Tehran and Washington to spark a showdown that serves their own interests.

Iraq “pays a disproportionate tax on Iranian-American tensions and (has) an unenviable front-line position in any future conflict between the two,” said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore.

During the three-year battle to oust the Islamic State group from Iraqi cities, powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias on the ground effectively fought on the same side as US-led coalition warplanes in the skies.

But since Iraq declared victory over the jihadists in December 2017, relations between Washington and Tehran have deteriorated sharply.

In May last year, US President Donald Trump pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and later re-instated tough sanctions.

This April, Washington dubbed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a “foreign terrorist organisation”, prompting Iran to designate US troops across the region as “terrorists”.

Tensions escalated this month, with Washington deploying a carrier group and B-52 bombers to the Gulf over alleged, unspecified Iranian “threats”.

The Trump administration last week ordered non-essential diplomatic staff out of Iraq, alleging Iran-backed armed groups posed an “imminent” threat.

On Sunday, a rocket was fired into the “Green Zone” of Baghdad that houses government offices and embassies, including the US mission.

There has been no claim of responsibility.

For Iraqi political analyst Essam al-Fili, the rocket attack was a sign some sides want to pull Tehran and Washington into a confrontation in Shiite-majority Iraq.

“There are those who want to fight Iran with other people’s weapons, and those who want to fight the US with other people’s weapons,” he said.

But he added that Iran has “so far favoured restraint in Iraq, a country which is vulnerable on the security front”.

Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has echoed those fears, saying Tuesday that Iraq would “very soon send delegations to Tehran and Washington to push for calm”.

He warned that Iraq “does not have the option of distancing itself” from US-Iranian tensions, and stressed the need to “avoid giving other parties the space to inflame the situation”.

– ‘Settling old scores’ –

Several groups in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition that battled IS denied any link to the rocket attack, with Assaib Ahl al-Haq chief Qais al-Khazali pointing a finger at “Israeli interests”.

Analyst Karim Bitar stressed that “the stakes are so high that Iranian proxies cannot act without an explicit green light” from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force.

Tehran and Washington “know perfectly well that it’s an unwinnable war and that an all-out confrontation would be devastating for both the US and Iran”, said Bitar, an expert at France’s Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

But, he added, “the inflammatory rhetoric of the past few weeks plays right into the hands of Iran’s hardliners” as well as pleasing Saudi Arabia and Israel, “bent on settling old scores with Iran”.

Tehran accuses its regional Sunni rival Riyadh and archfoe Israel of pressing the Trump administration to adopt a hard line.

But experts doubt the crisis will result in a head-on confrontation with Washington.

“There won’t be a direct war. The United States is counting on a collapse of the (Iranian) economy, which could be accompanied by limited air strikes,” said Iraqi political scientist Hashem al-Hashemi.

He said Washington may also urge Israel to carry out air strikes against Iran’s militia allies in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Meanwhile, memories of American interventions in recent years could also dampen Washington’s appetite for an offensive.

“The US foreign policy and security establishment knows full well that attacking Iran would make the Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya wars look like walks in the park,” Bitar said.

“So besides some messages that could be sent on the Iraqi arena, unless utter madness prevails, a large, open, direct war is still unlikely.”

UN team unearths 12 mass graves in Iraq probe of IS crimes
United Nations, United States (AFP) May 20, 2019 -
A UN team investigating the massacre of Iraq’s Yazidi minority and other atrocities has excavated 12 mass graves and is collecting witness accounts that could be used in Iraqi and other national courts, according to a UN report seen by AFP on Monday.

The Security Council agreed in 2017 to establish the UN probe to ensure the Islamic State group faces justice for war crimes in Iraq and Syria — a cause championed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

In the report sent to the council, the head of the team, British lawyer Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, said efforts were focused on three initial investigations: the 2014 massacre of Yazidis, crimes committed in Mosul from 2014 to 2016, and the mass killing of Iraqi military recruits in the Tikrit area in June 2014.

The team began work in October, with the first mass grave containing IS victims unearthed in March and April in the Murad’s home village of Kojo in Sinjar in northwest Iraq.

Ahmad Khan said “progress had been slower than hoped” in the investigation and stressed the need to establish “clear and effective channels” to use the evidence in Iraqi proceedings.

The Iraqi government had resisted calls for the UN probe despite evidence of more than 200 mass graves in Iraq containing victims of IS, who swept across northern Iraq in 2014.

Murad is among thousands of Yazidi women who were taken hostage and held as sex slaves, while hundreds of men and women are believed to have been executed by the jihadists.

The United Nations has described the massacre of the Yazidis by IS militants as possible genocide.

As well as excavations of mass graves, the 48-member team has “engaged first-hand with survivors and witnesses” and has put in place a witness protection program, said the report sent to the council on Friday.

“In Mosul, Tikrit, Dohuk, and elsewhere in Iraq, victims have told harrowing accounts of their suffering, of entire communities erased and of women and girls taken as slaves,” it said.

The team is negotiating agreements with Iraqi authorities to hand over evidence and is ready to provide material to other courts to hold IS members accountable for their crimes, it said.

Iraqi Airways to resume flights to Syria after 8-year break
Baghdad (AFP) May 16, 2019 -
Iraq’s national carrier is to resume flights to the capital of neighbouring Syria for the first time since the war there erupted in 2011, a spokesman said Thursday.

Iraqi Airways will operate a weekly service from Baghdad to Damascus starting Saturday, spokesman Layth al-Rubaie told AFP.

Rubaie said the resumption of flights between the two neighbours was “important”, citing bilateral trade, tourism and “the size of the Iraqi community living in Syria”.

The Syrian transport ministry welcomed the decision in a statement on its official Facebook page.

Rubaie said the last flight from Baghdad to Damascus took place in December 2011, before the service was suspended due to the conflict that erupted in Syria that year.

Most airlines stopped flying over Syria after the conflict broke out, with many taking longer routes to circumvent the war zone.

But the conflict has wound down in recent years, after major regime advances against rebels and jihadists with Russian military backing since 2015.

Damascus has been largely spared the violence.

In April, the Syrian government said it had agreed to allow regional aviation giant Qatar Airways to resume flights over the country.

“The agreement came on the principle of reciprocity, as SyrianAir crosses Qatari airspace and never stopped flying to Doha throughout the war,” the Syrian transport ministry said at the time.

The use of Syrian airspace would see “increased revenues in hard currency for the benefit of the Syrian state”, it added.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011 as the death toll escalated and several regional powers bet on President Bashar al-Assad’s demise.

But the regime, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has since re-conquered much of the territory it had lost to rebels and jihadists, and now controls some two-thirds of the country.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reopened their missions in Damascus.

Jordan reopened a key land crossing with its Syrian neighbour in October last year after a three-year hiatus.

Analysts said the move would help Syria inch its way back into trade with the wider region as it looks to boost its war-ravaged economy.

Jordanian officials have also visited Damascus to discuss plans to reopen Syrian airspace to its Royal Jordanian’s commercial flights.

The Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that sparked a brutal regime crackdown.

The spiralling violence drew in regional powers and has killed more than 370,000 people, displacing millions.

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Katyusha rocket fired into Baghdad Green Zone

Baghdad (AFP) May 19, 2019

A Katyusha rocket was fired Sunday into Baghdad’s Green Zone housing government offices and embassies including the US mission, days after the United States evacuated staff from Iraq citing threats from Iran.

“A Katyusha rocket crashed into the Green Zone without causing casualties,” the Iraqi security services said in a brief statement without giving further details.

Tensions between the US and Iran have been high since Washington withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and … read more

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