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Despite Troubling Echoes of 2003, Iraqis Think U.S.-Iran War Is Unlikely



BAGHDAD — On the streets of Baghdad and in its halls of power, people know what the run-up to a war looks and sounds like, and this, they say, isn’t it.

In the Trump administration’s talk about Iran, they hear the eerie echoes of 2002 and 2003, just before the American invasion of Iraq: the warnings that a rogue Persian Gulf state poses a danger to the United States, the claims of evidence that others do not see, the threats of military retaliation. Yet they insist that the prospect of a full-blown war is remote.

“It’s just talk, just threats,” said Salim Abu Hassan, 48, after delivering a shipment of scales for babies. He said he had fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and was in Baghdad when the United States attacked 16 years ago. “Iran and America are each one trying to shout louder than the other.”

In government and security circles, there is more concern.

Iraqi officials said they are taking steps to avoid a war and have warned armed groups tied to Iran to refrain from taking any action that could provoke American retaliation.

Many of those groups worked in tandem with the Iraqi military in fighting the Islamic State, and all of them report to the prime minister’s office.

“The last two days there have been continuous meetings with all the groups to convey the Iraqi government’s message that if any one does something, it is their responsibility, not Iraq’s,” said Sayed al-Jayashi, a senior member of Iraq’s National Security Council.

“The Iraqi government is responsible for protecting American interests in Iraq,” he added. “We will become the enemy of anyone who does something against American interests.”

One of the largest of the 30 or so armed groups, the Peace Brigades of Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist cleric, say the government needs to be even tougher with them.

“There is still no plan on the ground about what the government will do,” said Salah al-Obaidi, the spokesman for Mr. al-Sadr. “In the military there has to be strict rules and if anyone breaks the rules or does anything outside the plan, they are punished, and the government has not done that.”

In the past two weeks, the Trump administration has said, repeatedly and publicly, that Iran and Arab Shiite militias aligned with it were planning to strike American troops in the region, and that the threat had increased recently. But it has not revealed what evidence supports that assessment, and allies of the United States say that while Iran and its confederates pose a danger, there is nothing new about it.

The claims have led many in the region to draw parallels to the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in 2003 based on false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates reported that four oil tankers had been damaged in attacks off the Emirati coast, and Saudi Arabia said the next day that two of the ships were Saudi. Those two nations — longtime antagonists of Iran’s — and the United States have refrained from making public accusations or revealing what they know about the incidents, but privately, their officials have made clear that their suspicions focus on Iran.

American officials said Monday that there was no definitive evidence linking Iran or its proxies to the attacks.

The Trump administration has dispatched an aircraft carrier, long-range bombers and an antimissile battery to the region in recent days, and has updated plans for a war with Iran. On Wednesday, the State Department ordered a number of its “nonemergency” personnel in Iraq to leave the country.

Mr. al-Jayashi, the Iraqi security council member, said he believed that the Iranian government does not want war, but that he worried about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps acting on its own.

The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warned this week of “the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side.”

But fear of a standoff on a hair trigger does not seem to be prevalent on the streets of Baghdad.

“America and Iran are together, they both came here to fight Daesh,” he said using the Arabic term for the Islamic State,” said Adnan Sattar, 30, who works in the same store as Mr. Abu Hassan.

The mood was similar at a nearby barber shop, where Ali Selim was hanging his towels to dry on an outdoor rack and two friends were dozing in the afternoon heat inside.

“I am not worried, Iran and the United States, each one is afraid of the other,” Mr. Selim said. “There will be some mediators between Iran and America — maybe Europe.”

The parallels to 2003 do not escape anyone, but Mr. Selim’s comment pointed to one important difference: Then, important American allies like Britain, Canada and Japan supported the Bush administration in going to war; now, the Trump administration’s hostility to Iran is a far lonelier stance.

Last year, President Trump withdrew from the 2015 agreement under which Iran gave up parts of its nuclear program and froze others in return for relief from some economic sanctions. The president imposed new sanctions, his administration determined to squeeze Iran hard enough to force a change in government.

The other signatories to the deal — China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union — still support it and have pleaded with Iran to stick by it. But this month, Iran said it would stop complying with some elements of it.

Mr. Trump has long called the Iraq war a mistake, and has said that American forces should withdraw from the Middle East and other parts of the world. But his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, has advocated military strikes against Iran and regime change there, and as a State Department official in 2003, was seen as one of the more hawkish voices on Iraq.

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