The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, spoke for the first time about the attacks on the bases of the Hizbullah Brigades (Kataib Hizbullah) in Iraq and Syria. He said, retweeting President Trump,1 that the American airstrike against the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hasdh al-Shabi) was “revenge for the central role that the Hizbullah Brigades played in the struggle to defeat the Islamic State, which is the handiwork of the United States.”
Khameini, who was addressing a gathering of male and female nurses to mark the birthday of Zainab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad whose gravesite mosque is a Shiite shrine located in the southern suburbs of Damascus). He roundly condemned the U.S. operation by “Satan on Earth” (i.e., the United States).
Khameini said that the assault on the American embassy in Baghdad testifies that there is fierce anti-American sentiment in Iraqis’ hearts. The incident also signals, he claimed, that Trump who charged Iran2 with responsibility for the killing of an American citizen and the breach of the U.S. embassy, does not understand that all the peoples in the Iraqi, Afghani, and Syrian regions hate the United States, and “eventually this hatred erupts somewhere.” Khamenei warned that Iran would strike back ruthlessly at whoever tries to harm its people and its values.3
The Iranian media, for its part, gave substantial and boastful coverage to the breach of the American embassy compound in Baghdad, which came on the heels of the funerals of those killed in the American attack. Members and leaders of the PMF and Iraqi Shiite militias took part in the demonstrations outside of the embassy and stormed the compound. Some of the pictures from the breach of the compound show members of the Hizbullah Brigades militia attacking the United States Embassy and expressing support for Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran’s English-language Press TV broadcast directly from the vicinity of the embassy in Iraq. The state television channels offered special news flashes, and along with the ongoing coverage, a small square in the corner of the screen beamed a direct broadcast from the embassy grounds while the newscasters repeatedly stressed, “The Iraqi people demand the ouster of the embassy and the American forces from Iraq.”
The clashes at the embassy also captured the main headlines in the ultraconservative Iranian press, which portrayed the confrontations at the “den of spies in Baghdad” as a kind of mirror image of the takeover of the American embassy – also called a “den of spies” – in Tehran in 1979.
The lead headline of Kayhan, which generally reflects Khamenei’s stance, proclaimed that “The Blood of al-Hashd al-Shabi Has Unified Iraq.” The paper detailed at length the clashes around the embassy and “the American attempts to take over Iraq.”
Iran is trying to exploit the events at the U.S. embassy to downplay criticism within Iraq and divert attention from it. Iraqis have increasingly criticized Iran’s ongoing presence in the country, its political meddling, and its support for the Shiite militias in Iraq that results in spilling Iraqi blood. Some of these militias were mobilized to brutally put down popular demonstrations in Iraq. The Iranian-supported Shias militias have drawn the United States and Israel into retaliating on Iraqi soil, at the expense of the Iraqi population.
At present, the United States has opted to respond indirectly to Iran’s efforts via its Shiite militia proxies to attack American interests, such as the embassy compound and bases. U.S. forces have not mounted direct strikes on Iranian forces or on Iran itself. The nature and intensity of the Iranian response to the American bombardment, even if it makes use of these same Shia militias, could alter the pattern of American activity and lead to a direct U.S.-Iranian escalation.
In light of the growing strategic importance of Iraqi territory for its efforts in Syria and Lebanon, Iran is not likely to put a halt to its actions. It is possible that, instead of making use of the Iraqi Shiite militias, Iran will respond employing the Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis claimed they were behind the attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in Saudi Arabia (even though it was apparently carried out by Iran from its own territory). Iran can call on other actors in the region who are subject to Iran’s authority (such as the Shiites in Bahrain, where the United States has a large military base).
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