Twenty-two years after Congress gave former President George W. Bush the greenlight to use military force against Iraq, the Biden administration is citing the same 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to justify the most recent deadly U.S. airstrike in Iraq.
The January 4 drone strike on a vehicle in a security district of bustling Baghdad reportedly killed at least three members of the Iranian-backed Harakat al-Nujaba militia, which the U.S. accuses of coordinating attacks on U.S. personnel still stationed in the region. However, the Iraqi military claims the militia operates under the country’s official security apparatus known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and a spokesman likened the drone strike to a “terrorist attack.”
Iraqi leaders are furious, and observers across the world worry the strike is a sign that unconditional U.S. support for Israel’s war on Gaza could spark a wider regional conflict involving various militias and Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
From President Latif Rashid on down to virtually every member of Iraq’s parliament, Iraqi officials unequivocally condemned the U.S. strike, warning the U.S. not to use Iraq as a “proxy battleground.”
“This is a blatant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and security,” said Rashid in a post to social media after the airstrike last week. “We also condemn the attacks on Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Iraq must not and will not be turned into a proxy battleground.”
U.S. officials defended the strike in Baghdad as an act of self-defense to deter drone attacks that have caused little damage but reportedly injured about 60 U.S. personnel stationed in Iraq and Syria, calling the Iraqi government an “important and valued partner.”
Iraqi lawmakers voted in 2020 to expel remaining U.S. forces after a drone strike authorized by former President Donald Trump killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, but the U.S. is still training and equipping Iraqi security forces, an effort U.S. taxpayers have funded for many years now. With the entire region on edge over the war in Palestine, this level of cooperation may be on the rocks.
“Priority must be given to dialogue as a means to defuse tensions and find common ground,” Rashid said.
In a memo to congressional leaders on Friday, President Joe Biden said he directed the strike — within the borders of a sovereign nation considered an ally and without authorization from Congress — under the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, or AUMF, passed back in 2002. Biden also cited the 2001 AUMF that authorized the Bush administration to use force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The strike was “necessary and proportionate” and in accordance with international law, the president wrote, adding that the U.S. military “stands ready to take further action, as necessary and appropriate, to address further threats or attacks.”
Anti-war and human rights groups have long pressured Congress to repeal both authorizations as a succession of presidents have used them to justify launching military operations in at least 10 countries without going to Congress first. Both AUMFs have been central to justifying presidential authority to wage the “war on terror” over the past two decades. Multiple bipartisan attempts at repealing the authorizations have failed.
Mike Merryman-Lotze, a policy director at the pro-peace American Friends Service Committee, said the January 4 strike emphasizes the need for a repeal of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs.
“Since they were first passed, every administration has used the AUMFs to justify global military actions without discussion [or] debate and often against the wills of the governments of the countries where military actions occur,” Merryman-Lotze said in an email. “Actions like the Trump Administration’s assassination of General Soleimani – also justified through the 2002 AUMF – have brought the U.S. to the brink of war.”
The response from Congress has been more muted, but a significant faction of Democrats and a handful of isolationist Republicans have spent years trying to repeal the 2002 AUMF in order to rein in runaway presidential war powers associated with the U.S.-led war on terror that destabilized Afghanistan, Iraq, and much of the Middle East.
President Joe Biden, who backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, previously said he supported bipartisan Senate legislation to repeal the 2002 AUMF that was reintroduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) in February, but that was before the Biden administration became a stalwart supporter of and supplier for Israel’s extremely deadly retaliatory strikes and invasion of the Gaza Strip.
The U.S. still has about 2,500 troops in Iraq and another 900 in Syria, ostensibly to help fight the remnants of the Islamic State, which temporarily carved out its own territory in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Syria’s civil war. It eventually suffered defeat in Iraq and Syria at the hands of an international coalition by 2019.
In response to the devastating war on the people of Gaza that followed the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, Iran proxy forces have reportedly launched dozens of drone attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria that have caused little damage to infrastructure but injured about 60 U.S. servicemembers and contractors, according to Voice of America.
“The U.S. should focus on securing a ceasefire in Gaza and ending the regional spread of conflict,” Merryman-Lotze said. “This attack moves us in the opposite direction.”
The House passed historic legislation in 2021 to repeal the 2002 AUMF for the use of military force in Iraq, and the Senate passed similar legislation in March to repeal both the 2002 AUMF and a 1991 measure authorizing the Gulf War.
Democrats lost control of the House in 2022. In October, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) announced the drafting of a new AUMF that would allow the U.S. military to target Iran-backed groups. McCaul said he hoped the legislation would not be necessary, but Congress should be prepared to respond as Israel’s war on Gaza threatens to spill across borders. So far, the bill has not been introduced, but peace groups warn that even considering such a bill could inflame tensions in an already volatile situation.
In addition to the U.S. strike in Baghdad and an Israeli strike that killed a Hamas leader in Lebanon last week, an apparent ISIS bombing killed dozens of people in Iran gathered at a memorial for the anniversary of General Soleimani’s assassination in 2020 by a U.S. drone strike on Iraqi territory.
Tanya Goudsouzian, an analyst for Responsible Statecraft, noted the U.S. drone strike on the militiamen in Baghdad came just one day after the four-year anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination turned to tragedy in Iran. It’s hard to imagine a worse time to assassinate a leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Goudsouzian argued, and the unilateral drone strike ordered by Biden can only “intensify the risk to American diplomats, troops, and civilians in Iraq.”
“Emotions were already running high among Iraqis and Iranians, and this could easily be exploited,” Goudsouzian wrote. “Calls for revenge are resonating throughout the country, and it is hard to ignore the high probability that fresh retaliatory attacks will follow from Thursday’s strike.”
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