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Iraq sees lull in American restaurant attacks after apparent Iranian-backed assailants arrested

FILE - Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Baghdad, June 5, 2024.
FILE - Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Baghdad, June 5, 2024.

Baghdad has gone a week without reports of American restaurants being damaged by apparent Iran-backed mobs, an indication that the Iraqi government is curbing a recent wave of assaults that have dented its projected image as welcoming to Western investment.

After the last reported mob assault, damaging a restaurant of U.S. chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) on Baghdad’s Palestine Street on June 3, Iraqi authorities reported arresting several rioters. Armed Iraqi security personnel were seen guarding the restaurant the next day.

The mob attacks began in the Iraqi capital in late May and involved masked men vandalizing and setting off small bombs outside American restaurants, including a branch of U.S. chain Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken and a branch of American-style Jordanian chain Chili House. No injuries were reported. Some other U.S. and British businesses also were targeted.

The Iraqi interior ministry published a Facebook photo on June 5, showing eight men whom it says were arrested under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law for alleged involvement in the attacks. The men were dressed in yellow prison uniforms with their faces blurred.

In a report published Friday, the Associated Press cited two officials of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias as saying their supporters carried out the assaults in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in its war against Hamas. An earlier report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that the behavior and apparel of the perpetrators resembles that seen in past incidents involving Raba Allah, a vigilante unit of Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah (KH).

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski condemned the violent attacks against U.S. and other international businesses in Baghdad in a May 30 post on the X platform. She also urged the Iraqi government to conduct a "thorough investigation, bring to justice those who are responsible and prevent future attacks.”

In an interview published Friday by news agency Rudaw, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for Middle East affairs, Steve Lutes, described the attacks as troubling. He also welcomed the Iraqi government’s efforts to crack down on them.

Anthony Pfaff, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative, discussed the factors behind the timing of the recent assaults and assessed their impact on Monday’s edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Global Crises program.

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The following interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Why have we seen Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias change their tactics in fighting the American presence in their country?

Anthony Pfaff, Atlantic Council: Shortly after Kataib Hezbollah’s January strike on the U.S. “Tower 22” base in Jordan, killing three American soldiers, the group said it was going to cease those kinds of attacks because it did not want to embarrass the Iraqi government [which has a partnership with the U.S.].

There was a sense at the time that not only the Iraqi government was exerting pressure on KH for that escalation, but also Tehran was worried about escalating too much with the U.S. in the midst of the war in Gaza. So, you saw a drop off in attacks against U.S. soldiers in the region.

Now, groups like KH are taking advantage of Iraqi popular sentiment that is against U.S. support for Israel, and they are trying to make it appear as if these attacks on American restaurants are part of a popular uprising. Such an uprising would accomplish their goal of putting pressure on the U.S. presence in the Middle East in general, and in Iraq specifically, to diminish it, if not drive it out.

The Iranian-backed militias think this strategy will allow them to deflect their responsibility for the attacks, and thus avoid both the kind of pressure that the Iraqi government might otherwise put on them, and the kind of retaliation that the U.S. might engage in.

VOA: You visited Iraq two months ago. What have you learned about public sentiment toward Iranian-backed militias urging people to boycott and damage U.S. businesses?

Pfaff: My sense is that there is not a lot of Iraqi support for the Iranian-backed militias.

I believe the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people do not want to be in the middle of a conflict between Iran and the United States. They have no interest in that. They want to posture themselves as a nation of opportunity rather than a problem.

That lack of Iraqi support for the Iranian-backed militias has been diminishing their ability to operate to some degree.

The Gaza war also has been triggering such a strong Iraqi sentiment against Israel, that some of these recent attacks could be perceived as a spontaneous expression of popular anger. But I seriously doubt that.

It would not be difficult for the Iranian-backed militias to falsely portray the attacks as a popular uprising and to take advantage of that narrative to go after these softer targets as a way of diminishing the U.S. presence in Iraq.

VOA: How credibly can Iraq make the case that it is a place of opportunity for U.S. investment in light of the attacks?

Pfaff: In terms of the impact on U.S. businesses, a lot of the targeted locations are franchises often licensed to an Iraqi company. So there is not a lot of revenue coming out of Iraq to the U.S. through the businesses that are being attacked.

The revenue that stays inside of Iraq is now being denied to those Iraqi companies. So the ones that these militias are really harming — the Iraqis operating and owning these businesses — are the first casualty of the assaults.

Another casualty is Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. His clear message when he traveled to the U.S. in April was that he wants to attract U.S. business to Iraq.

As he visited Washington and Houston, he signed memorandums of understanding with about a dozen U.S. companies to help them not just develop the Iraqi energy sector but other sectors as well. This kind of security situation, of course, is going to dampen the enthusiasm for that.

Some U.S. businesses may find ways to get around the security problem by having a shell company or other group work for them in Iraq without being American-branded. But overall, this is not good for Iraq's future economic prospects.