Could Israel’s Gaza war drag Iraq into another conflict?

Military vehicles of US soldiers are seen at the Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq in 2020. A base in northern Erbil was targeted on Monday, leaving three US soldiers wounded, one critically [John Davison/Reuters]

Iraq has increasingly become a scene for strikes between Iran-backed forces and the United States amid Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, with concerns mounting about a serious escalation.

The US said Tuesday it launched attacks on Iran-aligned groups in Iraq, amid a chaotic 24 hours in the region that also saw a senior Iranian general assassinated in Syria.

Let’s take a look at the main recent developments, and talk about what they could mean for Iraq and the wider region.


What’s happened in Iraq?

In the early hours of Tuesday, the US military said it launched strikes against three sites used by Kataib Hezbollah, a major Iran-aligned armed group, and other unnamed affiliated groups in Iraq.

It came roughly half a day after Kataib Hezbollah, which is part of the umbrella group Islamic Resistance in Iraq, claimed responsibility for a major attack on a US base in Erbil in northern Iraq.

Crucially, Washington said three US soldiers were injured in the attack which used a one-way suicide drone, with one service member suffering critical injuries. The US says its presence in Iraq and Syria is mostly aimed at combating a resurgence by the ISIL (ISIS) militant group.


US bases in Iraq and Syria have come under more than 100 attacks by Iran-aligned forces since the start of the Gaza war on October 7, but the attacks had not left any US service members seriously injured before.

The US Central Command, charged with operations in the Middle East, claimed its strikes on Tuesday “destroyed the targeted facilities and likely killed a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants” without causing civilian casualties.

What happened to the Iranian general?

The strikes by the Iraqi groups came hours after Iran’s top commander in Syria, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier-General Razi Mousavi, was assassinated by strikes in broad daylight.

Three missiles, widely believed to have been launched by Israel, targeted his home in Sayyida Zeinab south of the Syrian capital.

The district is where the most important Shia shrine in Syria is located, drawing millions of pilgrims each year. The IRGC service members operating in Syria are known in Iran as “defenders of the shrine” and Mousavi was in charge of coordinating them.


A senior member of the elite extraterritorial Quds Force of the IRGC, he was also a major actor in supporting the “resistance axis” in the Levant, having been active there since the 1980s.

Mousavi was close to Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general and a main architect of its regional influence, who was assassinated by a US drone strike in Iraq in 2020.

Top Iranian officials and military commanders, including President Ebrahim Raisi, have vowed that Mousavi will be avenged.


This is all happening while other members of the Iran-backed axis, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi movement, have been striking at Israel in a stated effort to stop its war that has killed over 20,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children.

What does this mean for Iraq?

The situation in Iraq is unstable and ripe for further escalation, but neither Iran nor the US is eager for a full-scale war, according to Tehran-based Middle East researcher and author Ali Akbar Dareini.


“So far, both Iran and the US have acted within the framework of rational actors, because they are aware of the dangers of an all-out military conflict,” he told Al Jazeera.

Dareini pointed out that the US has an upcoming presidential election, while its international standing has taken a hit and public opinion has shifted against its support for Israel as the devastation in Gaza has been laid bare.

“In an election year, it would completely eliminate Biden’s chances for re-election if American soldiers are killed. And a wider military confrontation would lead to more instability and a conflict whose repercussions will be unpredictable and would incur hefty costs for both sides,” he said.


“So, I don’t expect to see an all-out war, but there is always a risk of miscalculations.”

On the other hand, the analyst said, Israel has been eager to pit Iran against the US in a military conflict, especially as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could view this as a way to strengthen his political position amid falling confidence about his leadership abilities.

For its part, the Iraqi government can only hope and try to contain the situation, but its authority will be limited, according to Dareini.

“The situation has grown complicated in a way that I find it unlikely that the Iraqi government can exert total control over this.”

Soleimani anniversary around the corner

The Iranian general’s assassination on Monday and all the ensuing strikes come days before the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s killing on January 3.

Each year, Iran has renewed its promise to avenge the highly influential figure, and this year the anniversary is coinciding with one of the deadliest wars in recent decades involving Iran’s archenemy Israel.

For this year’s anniversary, Soleimani is expected to be feted as the “al-Quds martyr” to highlight his championing of the Palestinian cause over decades.

Analyst Dareini said an Iranian retaliation for the killing of Mousavi in Syria is inevitable, but it remains to be seen whether Tehran will choose to strike – directly or through its axis – in the coming days or exercise patience for operational purposes.

“I think both are likely, but a response is certain, because a non-response would only be seen as serving to embolden the other side and encourage it to ramp up its aggression,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera