Eye on the Middle East | Killing of US forces in Jordan & Washington’s response - Hindustan Times

Eye on the Middle East | Killing of US forces in Jordan and Washington’s response present new challenges

Feb 04, 2024 04:50 PM IST

The destabilisation of the US-Iraq relationship is the latest strategic butterfly effect of the Gaza war; its spillover effects have now hit Jordan

On January 28, three personnel of the United States Army were killed in Jordan at Tower 22 — a US logistics outpost near Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria used to support the larger al-Tanf garrison in Syria and advise the Jordanian military. The United States attributes the drone strike to one of a number of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, particularly the Kataib Hezbollah. In his immediate reaction to the attack which caused the worst loss of US military life in the region in three years , President Joe Biden vowed retaliation and re-asserted Iran’s liability for supporting these groups, even as he expressed his desire to avoid a wider war.

A satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC of military base Tower 22, located in northeastern Jordan. On January 28, three personnel of the United States Army were killed in a drone strike(AP) PREMIUM
A satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC of military base Tower 22, located in northeastern Jordan. On January 28, three personnel of the United States Army were killed in a drone strike(AP)

Iran distanced itself from these attacks but reiterated its criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza and its general support for acts of resistance groups. The Kataib Hezbollah (KH) itself announced on February 1 that it will suspend all attacks on US forces in the region. Asserting that US installations were subjected to further attacks despite the KH’s announcement, Washington responded on February 2 and 3 with a wave of air-strikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.

This exchange of attacks between the United States and Iran-backed militias in Iraq, however, exposes new fault-lines for Washington in the Middle East.

In 2014, as the Islamic State ran over Iraq territory, closing in on Baghdad and the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, a call for popular armed mobilisation by Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s powerful senior-most Shia theologian, led to the formation of several armed groups under the umbrella of the Hashd al Sha’abi (or Popular Mobilization Forces; PMF).

Economically, politically, and militarily backed by Iran (through its Qassem Soleimani-led Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC), these militias spear-headed the anti-IS fight on the ground in Iraq. In effect, despite the larger political conflict between the United States and Iran, anti-IS operations by the Hashd were effectively supported by the United States’ Operation Inherent Resolve (the Washington-led coalition to fight IS).

Post IS’ capitulation in 2019 however, Iraq (with a weakened army), was faced with a troubling issue: these groups refusing to disarm or demobilise. With Iranian backing, the most powerful of these groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah, eventually acquired an out-sized role in Iraqi politics, extending and withdrawing support to key political blocs to preserve their interests through legislation within the Iraqi government.

With the PMF itself having been granted legal cover in 2016, the new post-IS common feature of all these groups was the opposition to the remainder of US forces in Iraq. Whenever the crisis between Iran and the United States flared up, these groups (with varying degrees of command or control from Iran’s IRGC-QF) have mounted drone strikes and rocket attacks at US bases in Iraq — about 150 attacks in Iraq (and Syria) during Joe Biden’s Presidency.

As Israel’s war in Gaza deepened, at least four of these groups — Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib ahl al Haq, Kataib Sayyid-ul Shuhada and Harkat Hezbollah al-Nujaba — reconvened under the larger umbrella title of the Islamic Resistance of Iraq (IRI). Using the same logic as the Houthis to increase the costs of supporting Israel, the IRI has mounted over 150 attacks on US forces in Iraq since October 2023. Tower 22 was its latest.

While Washington maintains about 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria, the US presence in Jordan is part of an older Status of Forces Agreement, with US troops aiding Jordan in better border defence as the threat from the IS grew.

There are two new risks posed to the US’ regional standing in the Middle East.

One, there has always been simmering resentment within the Jordanian population for the government allowing US troops on its soil (freshly evident after a new defence cooperation agreement in 2021). Jordan itself has been vociferously critical of Israel’s war in Gaza, and has supported South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice.

Naturally, continuing US support to Israel is already a sour fact for Amman to reconcile with. The death of US forces on the Jordanian side of the Jordan-Iraq border brings the spillover effects of the Gaza war directly to Jordan as much as to the United States. Even as Jordanian political figures began fresh protests against US military presence, Amman has not officially indicated any desire for the US to leave; calling rather for US Patriot Missile batteries to be stationed for better Jordanian defence. Hence, while the larger US-Jordan bilateral relationship is largely secure, the strains caused due to the Gaza war have increased.

Two, the US-Iraq relationship is arguably facing its greatest test in contemporary times. In the last five years, the Iraqi government has been forced to constantly navigate the interests of Hashd-backed political blocs, its historic theological, cultural, and economic relationship with Iran, as well its security relationship with the United States (with its own economic perks). Naturally, its ties with both Tehran and Washington have been strained, depending on which capital tests Baghdad’s red-lines more at any given point. At present, Washington’s preferred approach of increasing strikes on Iraqi territory to directly deal with the Hashd/IRI and its complaints with Baghdad for not reining in the Hashd enough, has tilted the needle of strain more towards the Iraq-US relationship than Iraq-Iran.

Two days before the Tower 22 attack, Iraq announced that it considered earlier air-strikes on January 25 by the United States against Hashd targets in Iraq (itself as a response to earlier attacks on US personnel), as “acts of aggression”. With Washington’s new air-strikes on February 3, the Iraqi government condemned the “new aggression against its sovereignty”, and warned that it would put security in the region “on the brink of abyss”.

With Arab states’ continuing reluctance to join US-led efforts against the Houthis in the Red Sea, the destabilization of the US-Iraq relationship is the latest strategic butterfly effect of the war in Gaza.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal

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