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Calm In Iraq And Syria May Be Nearing Its End

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Conflicting reports from sources affiliated with Iran and its proxies have raised questions about their intentions, as a US base in Syria was targeted on Sunday for the first time in more than two months.

On January 30, following several months of sustained attacks against American troops in Iraq and Syria, the Shiite militia group Kataeb Hezbollah announced they would halt their strikes to “prevent embarrassment of the Iraqi government.” That announcement came after large US retaliatory air strikes targeting Iranian proxy forces in the region.

Sunday’s attack was reportedly followed by at least one armed drone launched at the Ain al-Asad air base that hosting US troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, a US official told Reuters on Monday.

That January statement about halting attacks had withstood the test of time until Sunday night when five rockets were launched from Iraq’s town of Zummar towards a US military base in northeastern Syria.

Shortly after the attack, a post appeared on the Telegram group affiliated with Kataeb Hezbollah, seemingly alluding to Sunday night’s rocket attacks, and stating that the armed groups’ in Iraq had decided to resume attacks because they felt the Iraqi government had failed to deliver a deal to end the US military presence in the country.

“Iraqi resistance gave Iraq’s prime minister three months to negotiate with the American forces to come up with a specific timetable for their removal from Iraq,” the post on the Kataeb-affiliated Telegram channel. “But now… It’s become clear that some political parties were lying: there is no foreign intention to leave Iraq.” Hence the decision “to resume military action.”

The “military action” (and the Telegram statement) came only one day after Iraq’s prime minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani returned from Washington, where he had met President Joe Biden and other US officials to advance the plans for the Americans’ withdrawal from Iraq.

Not long after, Sabereen News, another popular Telegram group affiliated by Iran and its proxies, issued a statement denying that Kataeb Hezbollah had released a statement. Another Iran-affiliated outlet, Al Mayadeen, seconded the denial.

“The news attributed to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq regarding the resumption of its operations against US forces is false,” Al Mayadeen quoted its Baghdad correspondent. ”Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah Brigades has not issued any statement regarding this matter.” In another statement issued on the Telegram messaging app, the group said the resumption of attacks is “fabricated news”.

It’s hard to tell with certainty which statement is true. Perhaps both. The difference could be intentional to create confusion, or it could be a sign of real clash within the groups’ rank and file.

Iran may also have a hand in all this: nudging its proxies to resume attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria in order to pressure President Biden to dissuade the Israeli government from targeting Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday –less than a day after the Israeli airstrike against Iran’s S-300 defense system near Isfahan– another round of airstrikes hit the headquarters and a major base of Iran-backed militias Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) in Babylon, south of Baghdad.

No one claimed responsibility for the overnight attack on Hashd al-Shaabi US military rejected claims that it had a part in the operation. Citing an unnamed Israeli official, CNN reported that Israel also denied involvement in the incident.

Not enough is known about the incident to help draw definite conclusions about its source. One thing can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty, however: that “a vast network of hybrid warfare is currently underway between Israel and Iran and its proxies in the region,” according to UAE-based analyst Masoud Aflak.

Updated at 15:00 GMT, April 22