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Intel: How Trump has laid the legal groundwork to strike Iran after Iraqi militia attacks

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about airstrikes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 29, 2019. With him are U.S. Army General Mark Milley and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. REUTERS/Tom Brenner - RC2C5E9P88JE

Mounting tensions between US forces and Tehran-backed proxies in Iraq could lead to broader American military action against Iran. If that happens, President Donald Trump already has at his disposal a legal opinion the State Department submitted to Congress last June.

“We do not make a distinction between the Iranian regime and any of its proxies that they organize, train and equip,” a senior State Department official told reporters today. “We are not giving Iran the fiction of deniability any longer.”

The United States blamed the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah for deadly attacks on American forces in Iraq and struck the militia in Iraq and Syria Dec. 29. Abdul Mahdi al-Muhandis, a former Kataib Hezbollah commander and current head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, has vowed “a very tough response” on US forces in Iraq.

Why it matters: Democrats in Congress are worried the Trump administration could use two prior military authorizations — one from 2001 and the other from 2002 — to use military force against Iran as tensions mount in Iraq.

The State Department submitted a legal opinion to Congress last June stating it did not view either Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as greenlighting strikes against Iran “except as may be necessary to defend US or partner forces engaged in counterterrorism operations or operations to establish a stable, democratic Iraq.” 

“The AUMF does permit us to operate defensively, so in this case, we were attacked by a militia in Iraq and then we took strikes as a matter of self-defense, which is consistent with the AUMF,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Middle East panel Chairman Ted Deutch, D-Fla., described the exception as a loophole “large enough to drive a tank through” in June.

What’s next: Iraq has objected to the US strikes against Kataib Hezbollah as a violation of its sovereignty. But it’s unclear how much authority the current government has as protesters flock to the streets to demand a political overhaul and an end to Iranian influence over Baghdad.

Know more: Read Iraq Pulse editor Ali Mamouri’s must-read explainer on the latest developments in Iraq as US-Iran tensions continue to mount amid the sweeping protests against the Iraqi political elite.

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