How the Gaza-Israel war could impact Iraq

5 min read
23 October, 2023

Iraq faces the looming spectre of spillover ramifications from the Gaza-Israel conflict, with potential repercussions extending to its stability, security, political landscape, and oil-dependent economy.

Early on 7 October 2023, Hamas launched a multifaceted surprise attack which killed around 1,400 Israelis, both soldiers and civilians, wounded hundreds, and saw around 200 hostages captured and taken to Gaza.

The historic failure of Israel’s army and intelligence agencies to counter and predict Hamas’s surprise attack shocked the government and its Western allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet, much like its predecessors, has so far retaliated with brutal military force and a total siege on Gaza, leading to widespread condemnations of multiple war crimes.

"Iraqi militias have claimed responsibility for several drone and rocket assaults targeting US bases in the country"

As Israel's military aggression against the Gaza Strip enters its third week, the Iraqi people, parliament, government, and Iran-backed militias have largely unified around the same position.

Since the first day of Israeli attacks on Gaza, Iraqis have mobilised in huge street pro-Palestinian demonstrations, while Iraqi PM Mohammed Shia al-Sudani condemned the "brutal Zionist aggression".

Iraq's Iran-backed militias, meanwhile, have declared their readiness to attack American targets in the country and have warned that if Israel attacks Hezbollah in Lebanon they would enter the Hamas-Israel conflict.

So far, Iraqi militias have claimed responsibility for several drone and rocket assaults targeting the Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts US and other international forces in western Iraq.

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They have also targeted Harir US airbase near Erbil, the capital city of the northern Kurdistan region, and it remains to be seen what further action they may take and how the Iraqi government responds.

Iraq is the only Arab country in the Middle East that has passed legislation banning normalisation with Israel. But the country could experience major destabilisation if Iraqi militias directly assist Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon in their daily confrontations with Israel.

“We in the Iraqi parliament severely denounced the Zionist regime’s inhumane aggressions and we will not tolerate attacks against civilians in Gaza and Palestine. The Arab League should hold an urgent summit for Arab leaders because it is a big crisis,” Karim Abu Suda, from the Iraqi Parliament's Security and Defence Committee, told The New Arab.

“The Arab League should unanimously issue a statement to the world that our brothers in Palestine are facing genocide."

A fighter of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces stands guard next to a wall showing the group's logo outside their headquarters in the capital Baghdad on June 13, 2021. [Photo by AHMAD AL-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images]
Attacks on US bases by Iraqi militias come at a time of increasing fears about a regional war. [Getty]

Asked whether he thinks Iraq will be involved in the Gaza-Israel conflict, the lawmaker said that the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) are part of Iraq’s defence system and are under the command of PM Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces.

“Sudani’s cabinet has been entrusted by the parliament and any strategic decision regarding going to war is in the hands of Sudani," he said.

PMF militias were officially incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces in 2016. However, some still back Iranian agendas in Iraq and proudly show their loyalty to Tehran.

“Following [...] recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces across the Middle East Region, today I directed a series of additional steps to further strengthen the Department of Defence posture in the region,” US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III said in a press release on Saturday.

"In response to Israel's brutal assault in Gaza, there have been calls to expel foreign, and US, forces from Iraq"

“I have also activated the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery as well as additional Patriot battalions to locations throughout the region to increase force protection for U.S. forces.”

In response to the events unfolding in Gaza, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s former prime minister, recently called for the immediate implementation of the Iraqi parliament's decision to expel foreign forces from the country. Some Iraqi lawmakers and angry Iraqis also asked the government to expel all foreign troops from the country.

Abu Suda clarified that the presence of the US and global coalition forces is a decision by the Iraqi government and Iraq still needs those forces to remain as it faces the threat of the Islamic State (IS).

The United States has some 2,500 troops in Iraq to advise and assist local troops in combating IS, which proclaimed a 'caliphate' in the country following its meteoric rise in 2014.

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The US-led coalition helped defeat IS in Iraq in 2017 and Syria two years later, but sleeper cells of the extremist group still carry out attacks in both countries.

Iraq's parliament in March 2018 asked the Iraqi government to set a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops based in the country.

“As Israel’s war on Gaza extends in the region and as it prolongs further, and as the Biden administration and its Western allies are threatening states sympathetic with the people of Gaza and the Palestinian question, hence these states [including Iraq] cannot remain a spectator,” Talib Mohammed Karim, a Philosophy Professor of history and civilization at the University of Mustansiriyah, told TNA.

Kamaran Mantik, professor of political sciences at the University of Salahadine, told TNA that the Gaza-Israel conflict is intertwined with a "global war" ongoing among the superpowers, regional powers, and armed factions.

Israel has killed over 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza since 7 October. [Getty]

"Further escalations in the Hamas-Israel conflict are based on how states across the Middle East, including Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, could dare to be directly involved in the war," Mantik said.

"The current Gaza-Israel war is the start of a big world war, which, opposite to the two past world wars, is developing via proxy wars. Therefore, all the related forces - including the Iraqi factions - are bound to the regional and global axes of power, and hence, they could not participate in the war directly," he argued.

He also said that if Israel were to make further escalations then it could develop to include involvement on the Lebanon-Syria front, reaching Iraq and even Jordan, which could involve Turkey and Iran.

"I think it is early to anticipate direct involvement by other forces and countries outside the regional neighbours of Israel. However, big escalations in the war are very possible."

Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's Iraq Correspondent, writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy