BAGHDAD – On the 2003th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in <>, the US-Iranian conflict remains one of the security challenges that threatened the stability of Iraq, especially with the increasing influence of the two countries in internal affairs and the center of decision-making in Baghdad amid a state of political and security squabble that is still present today.

This dual influence has posed major challenges to successive Iraqi governments in trying to balance the interests of the two countries inside Iraq, especially with the reflection of these interests in various forms of political and security conflict on Iraqi territory.

Years of conquest

In the midst of this two-decade-old conflict, Fares al-Mahdawi, director of the Sumerian Center for Media and Future Studies, says that the US-Iranian crowding in Iraq began with the movement of US forces towards the Iraqi border during the first months of 2003, which was closely watched and followed by the Iranian government, which felt that it was part of the American project to implement the new Middle East project.

He adds – in his speech to Al Jazeera Net – that Iran realized the plans of US forces to surround it after Washington applied its control over Afghanistan in 2002, where the concern of Iranian leaders at the time increased the presence of a right-wing US administration very hostile to Iran.

Tehran employed all parties and figures opposed to Saddam Hussein's regime, which used to use Iran as a safe haven, to meet with US officials, as Tehran offered to help US forces pursue officials and commanders of the Iraqi army, and showed its interest in reconstruction, and was keen to ensure that the Iraqi parties "allied to it" come to rule the country, as Mahdawi explains.

The director of the Al-Sumari Center pointed out that the dispute between the two countries emerged when the US administration accused Iran of seeking to thwart the US project in Iraq, which prompted the Iranian regime to use what he described as a "preventive confrontation" to force Washington not to think about targeting Tehran, noting that Iran cautiously entered the line of armed operations against Americans in specific areas, with the aim of exploding sectarian conflict and leaving US forces in a difficult situation.

Experts say US withdrawal came after Iran fueled sectarian conflict in Iraq (AP)

U.S. Withdrawal

With the situation in Iraq reaching the point of security lawlessness, the US political and military administration admitted the failure to manage the affairs of Iraq, as former President George W. Bush announced that the Iraqi Prime Minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, was the right and strong man to rule Iraq in 2006, so this was – according to Mahdawi – an American acknowledgment of handing over the administration of Iraq to Iran, which was welcomed by the Iranian administration, as since that date until today, the position of the Prime Minister of Iraq has been subject to Iran's approval.

"Iran's fueling of sectarian conflict in Iraq has made the security balance of US forces increasingly floundering, so Washington has tended to negotiate with Iraq with Iranian blessing in accordance with the Strategic Framework Agreement, which preserved Washington's strategy for Iraq and the region, and ostensibly highlighted a major victory for the Maliki government and Iran in Iraq," he said.

Mahdawi returns to confirm that Iran was the most beneficiary of the completion of the US withdrawal process from Iraq, and was the first to benefit from the entry of US forces into it, as it invested this in implementing its plans and expanding its influence in Iraq, and then bargained Washington on a deal that guarantees the safe exit of its forces in exchange for US concessions in regional files of interest to Tehran, especially the Iranian nuclear file, the Syrian crisis and the Hezbollah file in Lebanon, and this was evident during the conclusion of the nuclear agreement in 2015, according to him.

ISIS's control of Iraqi cities helped the United States and Iran establish their presence in Iraq (Al-Jazeera)

Conflict development

With the development of events, the conflict between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi territory escalated with the escalation of Iran's regional role, according to strategic policy professor Qahtan Al-Khafaji, who pointed out that Iran's great hegemony and the expansion of military actors loyal to it angered the US administration and pushed it to work to curb Iranian expansion and contain its growing influence in Iraq.

Regarding the reflection of this conflict, he adds that "American and Iranian interventions in shaping the political map contributed to the formation of distorted Iraqi governments, based on the inability of any party to bypass the other party and resolve the decision in Iraq in its favor," and therefore weak governments were born characterized by fragility and inability to achieve the demands of the conflicting countries or the Iraqi people.

The expansion of ISIS and its control over large areas of Iraqi territory in the summer of 2014 contributed to the consolidation of American and Iranian influence in Iraq at the same time, and military adviser Safaa al-Asam believes that ISIS's control of many Iraqi cities helped the United States and Iran to consolidate their presence in Iraq.

As a result, Al-Asam believes – in his interview with Al Jazeera Net – that the coalition forces have strengthened their military bases inside Iraq under the pretext of combating terrorist organizations, while Tehran rushed to introduce weapons and help the Iraqi government, and thus Tehran achieved great interests.

On Iran's exploitation of the battles to retake Iraqi cities from the control of ISIS in order to legitimize its influence in Iraq, Al-Asam stressed by saying, "Without terrorist organizations, Iran or any country would not have been able to interfere in the affairs of Iraq under the umbrella of fighting terrorism," pointing out that all countries that cooperated with Iraq in fighting the organization received a tax from Baghdad, whether financially or through intervention and domination, according to him.

Popular Mobilization Forces set fire to US embassy in Baghdad to protest air strikes on their bases (Reuters)

Protests and marches

Recent years have witnessed the escalation of the US-Iranian conflict, especially with Iran using Iraq as a springboard to expand its influence in the countries of the region, where it has succeeded in aborting US and regional efforts, especially in Syria, according to political researcher Muhammad Nana.

Nana adds – in his interview with Al Jazeera Net – that the United States realized the growing Iranian role from Iraq and worked to undermine it, noting that "Washington's support for the Iraqi popular protests that rejected Iranian interventions in 2019 was not direct or clear, but Iran's move to stop those protests and abort them was directly according to clear and strategic goals."

The Iraqi researcher attributes the reasons for the escalation of the US-Iranian conflict during the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi to the realization of the US administration and various Iraqi political parties that the continuation of this government will make Iraq a permanent arena for Iran.

The culmination of the direct conflict between Washington and Tehran in Iraq was during the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad in 2019, then the US air strike on the city of Al-Qaim, in which a large number of members of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah were killed, and what happened on January 3, 2020, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by an air strike at Baghdad International Airport.

The Iraqi researcher believes that the US-Iranian disputes in Iraq went beyond the proxy war to a direct war, after Iran responded with missile strikes that targeted the US Ain al-Assad base in western Iraq on January 8, 2020, in retaliation for Washington's assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

In this context, Nana believes that the parties associated with Iran considered the government of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi the closest to America, so the armed factions were keen to hold Al-Kadhimi most of the issues of corruption and security and economic deterioration accountable, and then these "pro-Iran" factions soon stopped their escalatory actions after the formation of the current government of Muhammad Shia Al-Sudani, to deliver a message that they can control matters and calm the situation in Iraq.