A deadly Iranian ballistic missile strike in northern Iraq on Tuesday drove a wedge — at least temporarily — between Baghdad and Tehran, adding to the already volatile and tense situation in the Middle East.
The Iraqi government recalled its ambassador to Tehran and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad to the Foreign Ministry after at least eight ballistic missiles launched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps struck overnight in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, killing four civilians, including an 11-month-old girl.
The strike came amid widespread fears that the devastating war in Israel could spiral into a more deadly confrontation. The war has already sparked a low-level regional conflict between Iranian proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and the United States and other Wester powers.
The United States, France and Britain denounced the latest Iranian attack, which shook Erbil and set off sirens at the United States Consulate and at the airport, which was forced to suspend flights.
“They are contributing to the escalation of regional tensions and it must stop,” Catherine Colonna, France’s minister for Europe and foreign affairs, said in a statement, referring to Iran.
Iran said the attack was retaliation for the suicide bombing this month that killed 84 people at a memorial procession for the revered Iranian military leader, Qassim Suleimani. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack. Other Iranian missiles on Tuesday targeted Idlib, Syria, where the Islamic State still has a presence.
Iran also said the strike in Kurdistan was aimed at Israeli operatives, whom it asserted had been in Iraq and had been involved in the bombing.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Qassim Al-Araji, said that explanation was “baseless,” using some of the strongest language Baghdad has used against Iran, which has close political and military ties with the government in Tehran.
“The house that was bombed belonged to a civilian businessman,” said Mr. Araji, who rushed to Erbil from Baghdad a few hours after the bombing.
Mr. Araji, who is the Iraqi government’s point man on a number of sensitive issues related to Iran, has a long history of working closely with Tehran and is rarely publicly critical. His comment on Tuesday suggested that Baghdad felt it was being undermined by its neighbor.
Those killed in the strike included Peshraw Dizayee, a Kurdish businessman; his daughter, Zina; her babysitter; and a visiting business acquaintance, Karam Mikhail.
Iran has sent conflicting signals about its general intentions in the region, saying privately that it wants to avoid a larger conflict, but at the same time making bullish pronouncements promoting its proxy forces in the Middle East and making clear that it wants them to keep the pressure on Israel’s allies through attacks on U.S. bases and on shipping lanes in the region.
Such regular attacks by Iran’s proxies and allies raise the risk of killing U.S. or allied troops or civilian sailors, which could make the situation more volatile and deadly.
The strike on Erbil may have been an effort to convince Iranians that despite Tehran’s intelligence and security forces’ inability to prevent the attack on the memorial procession, the government was taking steps to punish the perpetrators, analysts said.
It is not the first time the Revolutionary Guards have targeted Kurdistan. There were at least two attacks in 2022 and many during Iran’s 2019 protests, which Iranian government leaders said were being encouraged by Iranian dissidents sheltering in Kurdistan.
But the attack this week played into the fraught politics surrounding the Iraqi government’s effort to end the U.S. troops’ presence on its territory. U.S. forces have been in Iraq since 2014 to help the country fight the remnants of the Islamic State and suppress its return.
Iran also wants the American troops to withdraw because it perceives their presence as a security risk since the two countries are enemies. Iraq has been caught in the middle.
Iraq’s Parliament — which now includes many lawmakers with ties to Iran — recently voted to have the troops leave. After a U.S. strike killed a leader in an Iranian-linked militia in Baghdad, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced that he wanted to begin determining how the troops’ departure should be carried out, and set up a committee to work out the details.
He did not specify a date, but recent interviews by The New York Times with many of the people involved have suggested that unlike in the past, when the Iraqi government said it wanted the troops to leave but did little to achieve that end, this time, it is serious.
But Tuesday’s strike could make the negotiations considerably more difficult.
One of several constraints in negotiating a departure — in addition to worries about an Islamic State resurgence — has been the Kurds, who have a close relationship with the United States and have benefited from the sustained U.S. presence. U.S. troops protected the Kurds in 2014, when Islamic State militants came within a few miles of the Kurdish capital. Kurdish leaders were already reluctant to approve the departure of U.S. troops, but the attack on the Kurdish capital seemed to deepen that view.
“We don’t think that terrorism has ended, and last night’s event is an indication that instability in the region is still very much at stake,” said Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Kurdistan, who sharply condemned the attack on Erbil at a news briefing while attending the 2024 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Responding to a reporter’s question of whether that instability would require keeping the U.S. troops in place, he added, “We need international cooperation and support to bring more stability to Iraq and the region as a whole.”
Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Kamil Kakol from Sulimaniyah.