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In Baghdad, Iraqis fear that US-Iranian hostilities will play out on local soil

An F/A-18 fighter jet taxis on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, Monday, June 3, 2019. The White House ordered to the U.S. aircraft carrier to the Mideast over a perceived threat from Iran.

JON GAMBRELL/AP

By LOUISA LOVELUCK | The Washington Post | Published: June 14, 2019

BAGHDAD — Iraqis watched with trepidation Friday as tensions soared between the United States and Iran, raising the prospect their country could fall victim to a violent tug of war between the two powers.

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, the nightlife has the kind of energy that Iraq's younger generations have never seen.

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 if Iraq, Iran sponsored violence against American troops.

With President Donald 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 their soil.

A rocket landed less than a less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad last month. Many saw it as a warning shot to Washington. On Friday, Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called for calm during a telephone call with U.S. 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, the threat of open violence 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, as he packed up his sidewalk DVD stall. "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 that 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-time threatening behavior. And while they say a violent confrontation between Iran and the United State is possible, these Iraqs 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 that Trump does not recognize. "The problem here is America. 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," Alawi said.

Given Iraq's history with both Iran and the U.S., it is inevitable that 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."
 

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