The US has deployed an air-defense system in the Green Zone in Baghdad to defend the area where the US Embassy is located against rocket fire and other forms of projectile attacks. The C-RAM system is meant to confront rockets, mortars and artillery.
US forces in Iraq, including at the embassy and personnel near the airport, have suffered a year of rocket attacks by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
The system is purely defensive and was put in place after discussions with the government of Iraq, the US says. It was deployed when lawless militias targeted US military and diplomatic facilities at least six times in less than a month, it says. “We have a right to defend ourselves,” a US official said.
The latest attack came at 2:17 a.m. on July 5, when Americans in the US were still celebrating the Fourth of July. A rocket was fired at the Green Zone and landed on a house, harming four Iraqis. It was an illustration of the indiscriminate nature of these attacks, the Americans said.
To understand why the US needs defensive capabilities, it is worth recalling that three members of the coalition were killed at Camp Taji in March, and a US contractor was killed near Kirkuk’s K-1 base last December. The height of the attacks was between October and December.
Some 5,000 US forces are deployed in Iraq at about a dozen locations. They mostly were at Ayn al-Assad and Taji, with others at K-1, Q-West, Nineveh, Baghdad, Erbil, Taqadum and Balad Air Base.
Iranian-backed militias, called the PMU, have vowed to force the US to leave Iraq. These groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Badr Organization, are not only pro-Iran but also part of the official Iraqi security forces. That means they get Iraqi salaries.
Some moonlight as rocket squads, driving their kitted-out Bongo-style trucks laden with 107-mm. rockets to within range of bases where US forces are and then setting charges to shoot the rockets.
The US sent a message last year that it would retaliate. The Iranian did not listen and ordered their main cadre, led by Kataib Hezbollah’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, to shoot rockets to harass the US forces. The US retaliated with December airstrikes. In response the pro-Iranian groups attacked the US Embassy compound in Baghdad.
The US monitored IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani as he flew to Baghdad. They then sent armed drones to kill Soleimani and Muhandis as the two men drove from Baghdad airport. This set off a tit-for-tat conflict in which Iran fired ballistic missiles at US forces at Ayn al-Assad and ordered more rockets fired. The US responded in March with airstrikes. Then things cooled off, and a new prime minister was appointed in Baghdad.
Iran’s friends in Iraq prefer a trickle of missiles to harass the US forces. The US has responded, using COVID-19 threats as a good way to mitigate things, by withdrawing from six posts around Iraq and transitioning from training to mentoring Iraqi forces.
US CENTCOM commander Kenneth Mckenzie says there is “contested deterrence” in Iraq. He has sent Patriot missiles to Iraq to protect US forces. The Iraqi government held up the missiles in January and February, but they eventually arrived.
Now, the C-RAM has been sent as well. Some have wondered why the US did not deploy the successful Iron Dome system Israel has used. The US has two batteries of Iron Dome. However, the US procurement process for things such as Iron Dome is so slow that it likely would not be used. The C-RAM will work for now.
The US military needs a solution for short- and medium-range air defense, something called IM-SHORAD, which will support brigade-level combat teams. The US likes acronyms, which basically add up to something that shoots down rockets and other threats, the kind of asymmetric ones Iran and its allies like to use.
Iranian-backed groups used Explosively Formed Penetrators and Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortars (IRAM) to kill Americans between 2007 and 2011. Now, these groups use 107-mm. Katyusha rockets.
US forces in Iraq, called Task Force Iraq, are transitioning to a Military Advisory Group under US Marine Corps Brig.-Gen. Ryan Rideout. Brig.-Gen. Bill Seely, also from the Marines, is departing as commander of Task Force Iraq after a successful stint.
The US says it has trained and mentored around 250,000 Iraqis during the operations against ISIS. The Iraqis have conducted some 1,200 operations in 2020, the coalition says, terming it a success.
This gives the US the ability to batten down the hatches and pull in troops so that its Security Force Assistance Brigades and other units that were previously in the field are no longer intermixed and exposed. That makes for fewer targets and easier retaliation should things get hot and escalate.
The Patriots and C-RAM are a start. Time will tell if it will be enough. Iraqi politicians are already chaffing and claiming the US has militarized the embassy area, a violation of diplomatic norms.
These same Iraqi members of parliament from the Fatah Alliance, who support Iran, did not complain when their colleagues in Kataib Hezbollah and the PMU fired rockets at US forces and the diplomatic compound. They know very well the rockets targeted Union III and other areas near the embassy.
There is one area in Iraq that is safe from the rockets: the northern autonomous Kurdistan Region. It remains to be seen if the US will quietly shift forces there and leave the C-RAM and Patriots in place to prepare for worse to come.