Iraqi men work in front of posters bearing the portraits of Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr (top), Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (C), and Imam Ali, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed, in the capital Baghdad's eastern Sadr City district on October 24, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Baghdad: Arch-foes Tehran and Washington may be temporarily calling it even after Iranian missiles targeted US forces in Iraq, but analysts predict violent instability will keep blighting Baghdad.

“Iraq will remain a zone of conflict,” said Randa Slim of the Washington based Middle East Institute.

Early Wednesday, Iran launched 22 ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq hosting American and other foreign troops, in a calibrated response to the killing of a top Iranian general in a US air strike last week.

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Missiles launched by Iran on US bases in Iraq on January 8, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Iran warned Iraq about the raids shortly before they happened and in their immediate aftermath, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran had concluded its “proportionate” retaliation.

US President Donald Trump, too, said Iran “appears to be standing down” and even suggested Tehran and Washington could work towards a nuclear deal while cooperating against terrorists.

That hinted at a common desire to contain the fallout, but analysts say it would not be enough to spare Iraq.

“Both sides are so mobilised in Iraq, which has become such symbolic terrain for hitting out at the other,” said Erica Gaston of the New America Foundation.

Both sides are so mobilised in Iraq, which has become such symbolic terrain for hitting out at the other

- Erica Gaston, analyst

Indeed, US troops and even the embassy in Baghdad had been hit by more than a dozen rocket attacks in recent months, which have killed one Iraqi soldier and an American contractor.

The attacks went unclaimed but the US blamed hardline elements of the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi military network incorporated into the state but linked to Tehran.

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Hashed Al Shaabi members. Image Credit: AFP

The strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad international airport on Friday also killed his top Iraqi aid and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Eyes on Hashed

Just because the US and Iran have struck each other directly does not mean the Hashed would now sit on the sidelines, said Gaston.

“The Hashed is closer to the tip of the spear,” she said.

“There isn’t perfect command-and-control in the Hashed, which includes a lot of angry militiamen willing to take revenge on the US,” she added.

Bolstered by Iran’s attack, the Hashed said Wednesday it would take its own steps avenge Muhandis’s death.

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“That is a promise,” vowed leading member Qais al-Khazali.

Hours later, two rockets slammed into the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, the high-security enclave where the US embassy, other foreign missions and some foreign troops are based.

Hashed factions decided in recent days to unite under a “resistance” coalition to oust US troops from Iraq.

No mediator

The spectre of bloodshed was especially worrisome as there is no evident mediator between the parties, said Slim.

In Lebanon, Iran’s ally Hezbollah has repeatedly clashed with its sworn enemy Israel but the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the south has usually intervened before the conflict could spin out of control.

But “who is the mutually liked mediator?” on Iraqi soil, Slim asked.

Baghdad has long warned that tensions between Tehran and Washington, which began deteriorating significantly in 2018, would bring devastating conflict to the entire region.

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Iraq’s government had tried to strike a balance between the two countries, both of which have close political and military ties to various elements of Iraq’s elite.

Balance now ‘impossible’

But the stunning developments of the last week - from the killing of Soleimani to Wednesday’s pre-dawn strikes - also hugely exacerbated Iraq’s political crisis.

“It has made a balance impossible and pushed Baghdad squarely into Iran’s camp,” said Toby Dodge, a professor at the London School of Economics.

Figures like Iraq’s President Barham Saleh, who was seen as one of the most senior officials with close ties to Washington, would likely see their influence dwindle.

“If last night was the theatre of retaliation, what today brings is political consolidation and domination of the pro-Iran factions,” Toby said.