BAGHDAD — As tensions soared Friday between the United States and Iran, Iraqis weighed the prospect that their country would once again become a battleground for the two rivals.
The recent military defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq has ushered in an unprecedented period of stability. Baghdad’s cafes do a roaring trade, and when darkness falls, night life has taken on an energy that younger generations here are seeing for the first time in their lives.
But sitting in the shade of a chaotic outdoor cafe Friday, Ahmed Ali, 58, was worried.
“If Iran and America do go to war, then of course we’ll be right in the middle,” he said, rubbing his temple with a frown. “This cannot go well for us.”
There are few countries where the power struggle between Washington and Tehran has had such an impact. Backroom deals involving officials from both countries have shaped the makeup of Iraq’s governments. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iran sponsored violence against American troops.
With President Trump on Friday accusing Iran of attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman a day earlier, Iraqis wondered whether they would see a new violent escalation on their own soil.
Iran backs a handful of powerful militias in Iraq, while the United States still has more than 5,000 troops here. Last month, the Trump administration said it had intelligence suggesting a threat to U.S. forces, and the State Department ordered a partial evacuation from its consular facilities in Iraq.
When, days later, a rocket landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, many saw it as a warning to Washington.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called for “calm” on Friday during a telephone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad were keenly aware of the dangers posed by the enmity between the United States and Iraq’s neighbor Iran. For people like Ali, a retired soldier who had fought in a ruinous eight-year war with Iran, the threat of clashes or violent attacks seemed real. For others, the very fact of rising tensions was enough to make them fret over how long the city’s boom might last.
“It will be like all the other periods of fear here. Things get tense, people get nervous, jobs suffer — we suffer,” said Abbas Mehdi, 60, packing up discs of “The Godfather” as he closed his sidewalk DVD stall for the day. “There are so many levers of influence that Iran could pull here, and like always, it’s the Iraqi people who would suffer most.”
The economic recovery that followed the victory over the Islamic State remains fragile, others said. Standing at his stall on the bustling Mutanabbi book market, Rasoul Kareem, 33, worried a return of violence to the country would quiet the streets and hurt his ability to support a family. “This place is so full again,” he said. “We don’t want that to change.”
Iraqis have long kept a close eye on their neighbor’s at-times threatening behavior. And while they say a violent confrontation between Iran and the United States is possible, these Iraqis are not predicting the worst-case scenario.
“It’s worrying, but it isn’t a new question in Iraq,” said Hussein Alawi, 56. “It’s been happening since the ’70s, and it seems pretty clear at this time that neither power is foolish enough to start a conflict here.”
As an Iraqi, he said, he saw a political truth Trump does not recognize.
“The problem here is America,” Alawi said. “It doesn’t take Iran seriously as a world power. It doesn’t see how rational the foreign policy is there. They’re just not going to snap and drag us into a war.”
Given Iraq’s history with Iran and the United States, it is inevitable Iraqis might feel fearful, said a young mechanical engineer, Mohamed Ali. “But Iranians don’t want a war, and nor do Americans. They don’t want to set the region on fire.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.