US ties with Iraq, allies take hit after drone strike

BAGHDAD (AFP) – A deadly United States (US) drone strike in Baghdad has rocked America’s ties with allies on the ground, left diplomats scrambling to contain the fall out and Iraqi officials outraged at the airspace violation.

The strike on the outskirts of Baghdad’s airport early last Friday killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, among others.

The US has hailed it as a win for “peace and stability” in the region, in contrast to Western diplomats and US military officials in Baghdad.

None had received prior warning of the pre-dawn strike and learnt of it when they woke up, sending them into crisis talks to salvage ties with Iraqi officials.

“The strike was such a surprise to all of us,” one Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Speaking to the Americans now is extremely complex. We’re talking a lot together as the European Union (EU) but the Americans have their own problems now,” the diplomat said.

Most ambassadors were still outside Baghdad for end-of-year holidays on the day of the strike, so political staff still in Iraq began a flurry of outreach to Iraqis.

They declined to comment due to the sensitive nature of current ties with Washington but expressed outrage at a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be,” Pompeo told Fox News hours after the drone strike.

“The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well,” he said.

MAJOR FISSURES

Even at the military level, the strike strained ties between the US and its other partners in the coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) group.

“As for our Western allies, in the grand scheme of things, it appears we screwed them over,” a top US defence official deployed in Iraq told AFP.

Some 5,200 US soldiers are stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing a resurgence of IS.

They make up the bulk of the broader coalition including troops from dozens of countries, invited by the Iraqi government in 2014 to help combat the extremists.

Last Sunday, in reaction to the strike, Iraq’s parliament voted in favour of rescinding that invitation and ousting all foreign troops.

The following day, a US general told the Iraqi government troops were preparing to depart “in due deference” to the decision but the Pentagon denied the withdrawal.

It only added to the chaos, with diplomats from coalition countries, saying they had not been looped into the letter to Iraq’s military, which the US said was a “draft”.

The US-led coalition and even NATO had already suspended training and anti-IS operations for security concerns in the wake of the assassination of Soleimani.

A second US military official told AFP the strike had made ties with coalition partners “extremely tense”.

“They would not look us in the eye. Imagine being a part of this team, and one guy decides to strike out on his own,” the second official said.

Daily interactions with Iraqi officials had also become strained, as the strike was roundly condemned by Baghdad as a violation of its sovereignty.

“This has caused major fissures in our relationships with them,” the top defence official said.

ALLIES UNDER THREAT

In the days following the strike, rockets have hit the high-security Green Zone, home to a host of embassies, and military bases where coalition forces are stationed.

The behaviour of the White House mirrors the lead-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Middle East specialist and former French diplomat. Now, as then, the US was “completely blind” to the repercussions of its military actions in Baghdad, he told AFP.

“The most disturbing thing in the American escalation is the absence of any proper Iraqi strategy, which can only destabilise the US’s allies in the anti-extremist coalition,” he said.