Iraq refused on Thursday to join the International Alliance for Safety and Protection of Maritime Navigation in the Gulf amid increasing tensions in the region. In a statement by the spokesman for the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, Ahmed Al-Sahaf said Baghdad believes the formation of any military force to protect the waterways in the Gulf would further complicate the situation in the region, as reported by the Middle East Monitor.
"Due to the fact that the escalation between Tehran and Washington took multiple paths, Iraq will remain neutral on this escalation and stresses the need to maintain the safety, balance and stability of the region," he said. "Iraq takes into consideration its interests, the nature of the region and developments taking place in it," he added, underscoring that, "The region needs to promote a common political vision between neighboring countries."
Following an attack by drones and cruise missiles on key Saudi Arabian oil installations, Iraq's government was quick to deny that the attack originated from Iraqi territory, a claim that was later said to have been confirmed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Abdel-Mahdi. The episode, however, demonstrated the Iraqi government's tentative hold over the militias and raised questions about what they might do if the U.S. starts bombing Iran. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional entrenchment, met this week with Iraqi Shiite politicians and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) leaders in Baghdad, apparently to discuss possible scenarios.
Wedged between Saudi Arabia to the south and Iran to the east, Iraq hosts thousands of U.S. troops on its soil. At the same time, powerful Shiite paramilitary forces linked to Iran pose a growing challenge to the authority of the central government. As the pressure mounts, divisions within Iraq's pro-Iranian factions have burst, threatening to collapse a fragile government coalition and end a rare reprieve from the violence that has plagued the country for years.
A directive issued by Iraq's prime minister in July integrating and placing Iranian-backed militias under the command of the state's security apparatus forces by July 31 has so far not been implemented. Instead, PMF billboards reading "Death to America" have popped up between lanes of traffic in central Baghdad, following allegations of Israeli involvement in the series of airstrikes. One poster bears a picture of what looks like the ghost of the Statue of Liberty wearing a black hood. "America is the reason for insecurity and instability in the region," it reads.
The divisions among Iran's Shiite allies in Iraq have been spurred on by a spate of airstrikes blamed on Israel that have hit weapons depots and bases belonging to Iran-backed militias, known collectively as the PMF. There have been at least nine strikes since July both inside Iraq and across the border in Syria, sparking outrage among PMF leaders. They blame Israel and by extension its U.S. ally, which maintains more than 5,000 troops in Iraq. Israel has not confirmed its involvement in the attacks, and U.S. officials have said Israel was behind at least one strike inside Iraq.