Rocket attacks on US forces and facilities are increasing in Iraq. Iran is likely behind them, but the US doesn’t want to raise tensions with Tehran and portrays any response as playing into Iran’s hands.
The US is also eyeing the return of diplomats after the Trump administration withdrew staff from the US Embassy in Baghdad and threatened to close it between September and December 2020.
On Monday, rockets were fired at the large US Embassy compound in Baghdad. Several days ago, rockets were fired at Balad Air Base, where contractors linked to the US are reportedly located.
On February 15, numerous rockets were fired at Erbil in northern Iraq, killing and wounding contractors and a member of the US-led coalition.
This is an escalation, but it is not unprecedented. There has been an uptick in threats and attacks against the US in Iraq since 2018. This increased rapidly in May 2019, and by December of that year there were numerous attacks on bases where US forces were located.
The Trump administration responded by consolidating bases and moving troops to the Kurdish Region, an autonomous area in northern Iraq, and closing other facilities. The US left Q-West, K-1, Camp Taji, Nineveh and many other areas. There were also airstrikes on pro-Iranian militias in 2019 and March 2020.
Pro-Iranian militias are likely behind the three recent attacks. The way Iran operates in Iraq is complex. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force members speak to the large pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias. The militias are all part of the large Hashd al-Shaabi, or PMU, a paramilitary force that is part of Iraq’s security forces.
The PMU was trained to fight ISIS, but it includes a plethora of pro-Iranian groups that have fought the US in the past or who fought alongside Iran. These include the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
Beginning last spring, after the US killed Kataib Hezbollah’s leader and targeted these groups for sanctions, several new groups emerged. These were cutouts or fake groups that provide a cover and plausible deniability for Iran.
The types of munitions used in these attacks are almost always linked to Iran. They include 107-mm. and 122-mm. rockets, which are almost always aimed at the same location. They include the same operational elements, such as an abandoned vehicle with a rocket launcher.
The notion that ISIS could be responsible is generally discounted because it uses different methods. This means the three attacks by Iran in a week are likely intended to see if the US administration will retaliate. The US says it has not determined who is responsible.
It is important to note that even if the US does identify a group, it may not be able or willing to link it directly to Iranian handlers. This doesn’t mean there is no intelligence to indicate that Iran ordered these attacks. There are ways to collect such intelligence, depending on how Iran may guide the attacks.
Little is known about how Iran runs its network of agents and militias in Iraq. That the attacks since May 2019 are almost identical, using the same munitions and with the culprits melting away after abandoning the vehicles where the rocket launchers were located, points to a hand that is state-guided. This is because random small militias operating on their own would do it differently. Each militia would have its own method, and mistakes would be made.
Launchers for 107-mm. rockets aimed exactly at the right location are not easy to target consistently. Yet the rockets rarely slam into civilian buildings. This isn’t always the case. In Erbil on February 15, some rockets did hit civilian areas. In Baghdad, civilians have been harmed. But the evidence shows that rockets are rarely fired in a wild manner or totally miss their target.
The likely reason culprits are never found for the rocket attacks is because it is in no one’s interest to find them. Iraq’s government doesn’t want to catch a pro-Iranian rocket team that is linked to the highest levels of a major political party. It doesn’t want to acknowledge that men on the government payroll may be involved.
US Central Command is not tasked with tracking these attacks back to their source. US soldiers have been targeted since 2003 by Iran, and many hundreds have been killed and wounded. But the US does not retaliate.
The US agencies tasked with finding the culprits, tracking them or listening in on them are the same agencies that don’t reveal what they know to the public. Instead, they put their information into a report or a presidential daily brief, and the president and key advisers discuss the efficacy of naming the culprits.
The Trump administration held Iran responsible for proxy attacks. But it was unwilling or unable to produce an exact timeline and show how rocket attacks are organized and ordered. This wasn’t due to lack of data points; there were weekly attacks in some months.
It now appears the attacks are increasing. Iran wants to see how the US will respond. Tehran also knows that NATO plans to send thousands of more forces to Iraq.
Iran says it could enrich uranium to 60%. The US is also discussing detained Americans in Iran. The US is downplaying Iranian rhetoric. The US also wants a fresh start with Iraq.
Over the weekend, US soldiers in Erbil showed journalists around the damaged areas of the base where rockets fell near the airport.
The timing of the attacks is clear. Iran wants to show the US that its forces are not safe in the Kurdistan Region, an area that is usually safe and stable.
It also wants to hit at the embassy, likely because it heard the US might have its diplomats return to work there. It also may aim at Balad Air Base to keep NATO from returning.