US embassy compound in Baghdad Iraq_311.
(photo credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
They say that “third time’s a charm,” but in the case of the US-Iran crisis, the third time that Iran and its proxies may have threatened the US and allies was a rocket fired at the Green Zone in Baghdad, near the US embassy. This comes in the wake of weeks of tension between Washington and Tehran in which the US has said that “any attacks by Iran or their proxies against US citizens or our interests will be answered with a swift and decisive response.”
The question for the US now is whether the rocket fired at the Green Zone was an attack by Iran or its proxies, and who carried it out. It took place after darkness fell in Baghdad on May 19. Iraq’s Defense Ministry spokesman said that a Katyusha rocket fell in Baghdad's Green Zone; he later said that a launcher had been found near the Technological University, around five kilometers from where the rocket fell.
US President Donald Trump responded twice to the rocket attack, first around two hours after it happened, and then later he retweeted a mention about it. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again,” he wrote. The last time he had mentioned the Islamic republic was on May 13 when he warned that if Iran did anything, it would “suffer greatly.” That was after four oil tankers were sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman and after Iranian-backed Houthis used drones to attack oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
The problem for the US amid the Iran tensions is that Washington had the upper hand during the first two weeks. It began on May 5 when National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that any attack against the US or its allies would be met with unrelenting force. The US completed a military build up in the Gulf, sending Patriot missiles, B-52s and naval assets. Iran was relatively quiet during that time, labeling the US rhetoric “psychological war.” But Iran was quietly preparing at home; the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) eventually briefed its provincial corp commanders and parliament about plans to defend the country.
By May 15, with no American action in response to the drones or oil tanker sabotage, a new narrative began to be pushed by Tehran. The regime said that the US wasn’t really interested in war and articles appeared across Iranian media - in Fars News, Tasnim and Press TV - asserting that the US was primarily engaged only in rhetorical threats.
Iran’s media also fed into claims in the US that the war talk was manufactured by Bolton and that it was part of a conspiracy involving Saudi Arabia, Israel and some pro-war “hawks” in the US. This became a talking point over the weekend on the far Right, far Left and among some former Obama administration officials, including Ben Rhodes, who also wrote that the Iran policy was “rooted in lies.” There was an attempt to portray the US administration as divided, with Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump not on the same page. There was also an attempt to revive the conspiracy theory that shadowy “neocons” were behind Trump’s Iran policy.
Now, the US faces a test after the missile was fired. First of all, they have to decide who carried out the attack. The AP reported that the rocket was fired from an area called Al-Wahda, which is “home to Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.” It’s not clear if that is the case; Shi’ite paramilitiaries could operate from many parts of Baghdad. It’s not obvious what makes the Technological University area evidence of pro-Iranian involvement. On the other hand, there is good reason to suspect these types of paramilitary groups because they have rockets, and Islamic State would be more likely to use other methods, such as a truck bomb.
Evidence of pro-Iranian militia involvement might come from Aletejah TV, which is linked to Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the major militia groups that is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Shaabi. These groups are now all part of the official paramilitary security forces in Iraq. Most of them openly use symbols similar to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, showing their link to Iran and the broader Iranian-backed groups in the region. Their leaders, such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Kata’ib Hezbollah, worked with Iran’s IRGC in the 1980s and continued to be close allies of Iran after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
Mixed messages have come from the militias since the rocket attack. Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization and a political party that includes mostly Shi’ite militias, said that the US and Iran do not want war, but that “the Zionists” are driving the region toward war. This was according to Aletejah TV. Amiri had said that those seeking to ignite a war were conducting themselves in the wrong fashion.
Meanwhile Qaiz Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said that anyone pushing for war would harm Iraq. But Kata’ib Hezbollah had a different take, noting that the rocket attack could harm the public interest in Iraq and was done at the wrong time. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which the US has already designated as a terrorist organization, said that it was ready to respond to any American aggression and that it would continue to fight the US until its “occupation” of Iraq ends. Both Amiri and Khazari blamed Israel for seeking a war in the region, and an IRGC statement also threatened Israel. The general message of the groups linked to the IRGC was that this is not the time for war in Iraq, and they sought to deny involvement.
The statements by the major Shi’ite militias tell us that the larger militias tend to be hedging a bit after the rocket attack, arguing that it could escalate to conflict and this would harm Iraq and their own interests. At the same, time others are itching for battle with the Americans. They have fought the US before, in the years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, so they know their adversaries.
However, for the last several years, the US and the Shi’ite militias were ostensibly on the same side against ISIS, and the militias didn’t want to provoke a war within a war. But they have called on the US to leave Iraq again and again. When Trump said that Washington would use Iraq to “watch” Iran in December, many of the pro-Iranian groups condemned him. US soldiers have been harassed in the Anbar and Nineveh provinces in the last several months.
The use of Katyusha rockets against the US has happened before in Iraq. Reports in the past indicated that they had even been found ready to fire at US forces near Taji and near Ain al-Asad in May and February. Last September, Katyusha rockets were fired at the US consulate in Basra. One could draw the conclusion that the same group had conducted all four attacks and attempted attacks using the same method. If that is the case, then it stands to reason that the US should know who did it by now. For instance, Washington evacuated the Basra consulate after the September rocket fire. It also pulled out staff from Iraq last week.
With mounting evidence of Iranian links to the rocket fire - including praise among pro-Iranian media and militias, and similar style attacks in the past - the US must decide if it will keep its word about retaliating.