Cairo: Less than a month after the inauguration of Joe Biden as the US president, a complex housing US-led forces in Iraqi Kurdistan came under a heavy rocket attack, the toughest test yet to the new administration. The attack against the Erbil airport in the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan killed one non-American civilian contractor and injured a US service member and several American contractors.
A little-known militia, calling itself Saraya Awliya Al Dam (Custodians of the Blood) claimed responsibility for the attack that outraged the White House.
US reserves the right to respond
“As always, the president of the United States and the administration reserves the right to respond in the time and the manner of our choosing, but we’ll wait for the attribution to be concluded first before we take any additional steps,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
The February 15 attack was the first targeting US military personnel in Iraq since Biden took office on January 20. However, it was one in a series of such attacks that have surged in recent years in different Iraqi areas including Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, home to the US embassy.
How has America reacted in the past?
On December 27, 2019, a US contractor was killed and several military personnel were injured in a rocket attack in northern Iraq. The US blamed Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitaries for the attack. In retaliation, the US mounted a string of air strikes against military facilities belonging to Kat’aib Hezbollah, a faction of Iraq’s Al Hashd Al Shabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces), the umbrella grouping of pro-Iran Shiite militias in Iraq. Some 25 militiamen were killed and 50 others injured in that attack, according to the militia.
Whether a scenario can play out along the same lines from either side (Iran proxies or the US) remains to be seen.
On Saturday, a military base housing US contractors in Balad in northern Iraq was the target of a salvo of Katyusha rockets. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the attack, like the previous ones, is believed to have been mounted by pro-Iran militias, who have been more pugnacious towards the US since Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, abandoned a 2015 international nuclear pact with Iran and reimposed sanctions on it. Biden campaigned on reengaging Tehran and restoring the contested deal aimed at limiting Iran’s capability to develop nuclear weapons.
These groups, mainly the Iran-aligned Al Hashd Al Shabi or the Popular Mobilisation Forces, gained more influence in Iraq during the fight against Daesh terrorists who had grabbed large swathes of the country in 2014.
Repeated pledges by Iraqi authorities to disarm the militias and re-establish state control have largely failed to translate on the ground. Evidence are frequent attacks, blamed on Iran-allied militias, targeting military bases in Iraq hosting US-led forces. The attacks are regarded as part of a proxy war between Washington and Tehran.
The paramilitaries linked to Iran-allied political parties have emerged a major tool in Tehran’s attempts to strengthen its foothold in Iraq and counter-balance the US influence.
Biden reaches out to Iran
To this end, the Biden administration last week offered to restart talks with Iran along with the European nations to revive the nuclear accord, in a reversal of Trump’s tough line or maximalist approach. The offer has failed to impress Iran, which insists that the US sanctions are lifted first. The latest attacks on US military personnel in Iraq are an early test of Biden’s rapprochement towards Iran. Delicate US quandary in Iraq
“Whether Iran intends such a test or not, the result is the same — the Biden administration must now either craft a response that looks firm and able to deter, or suffer an early loss of credibility in the eyes of regional partners,” said Michael Knights, a fellow of the Washington Institute.
The decision on the departure of foreign troops from Iraq is an Iraqi issue. If the political efforts of the government did not succeed in getting them out, we would resort to resistance to evict them.
“The US government faces a delicate quandary in Iraq … The administration wants to deter attacks on US persons and US partners, while setting a different tone from the Trump administration’s frequent recourse to military threats, occasional lethal retaliation, and imposition of new sanctions. Such goals set the bar very high for the new administration, and will certainly test its ingenuity and creativity,” he added.
Military response unlikely
Apparently keen to reengage Iran and placate its proxies in the region, Biden is unlikely to make a military response in Iraq unless the attacks cause such major casualties among the US citizens there that would compromise his public credibility. Earlier this month, the Biden administration significantly revoked terror designation of Yemen’s Al Houthi rebels, another proxy group of Iran, despite a surge in the militia’s cross-the-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, traditionally a key regional ally of the US.
The uptick in the attacks on US military personnel is seen as a measured tactic by the Iran-allied militias in Iraq to put Biden under more pressure to make more concessions to Iran. Given the resulting limited casualties, Iran’s proxies look careful that such attacks would not push the situation to the brink of major military escalation.
Created in 2007 to fight US troops in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah is now led by an unknown commander after its chief Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis was killed in January last year in a US air strike in Baghdad.
The militia is currently a faction of Iraq’s influential state-sanctioned umbrella group Al Hashed Al Shabi. In its ideology, Kataib Hezbollah defines itself as an Islamic resistance and jihadist movement espousing Islamic principles. The group sees Iran’s mullah-based governance as the “ideal way” to establish Islamic rule. Kataib Hezbollah is believed to be also linked to Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement. In 2009, the US put Kataib Hezbollah on its terror list and subjected the group to financial sections.
• ASA’AIB AHL AL HAQ
Founded in 2006, As’aib Ahl Al Haq is a political mainly Shiite political group with a military wing. It emerged as a militia with the avowed aim of fighting foreign troops in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. Currently led by Qais Al Khazali, the militia is noted for its fiery anti-US rhetoric. The group is strongly linked to Iran and its ally the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. It has 15 representatives in Iraq’s current parliament. In January last year, the US placed As’aib Ahl Al Haq and Al Khazali on its terror list
• BADR ORGANISATION
Founded by Mohammed Baqr Al Hakim in 1982, Badr Organisation first existed under the name the Badr Brigade as a major Iran-allied opposition group to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Many members of the Badr Brigade took refuge in Iran after their comrades were assassinated allegedly on orders of Saddam. The group’s membership swelled after Saddam’s toppling when Al Hakim announced disbanding the military group and replacing it with a civil one named the Badr Organisation. Currently led by Hadi Al Amri, the organisation is an affiliate of Al Hashed Al Shabi.
Iran and America fight their battles in Iraq
Over recent years, Iraq, a neighbour of Iran, has been the venue for score-settling tensions between Tehran and Washington. Iran sponsors a multitude of proxy groups in Iraq led by the powerful Al Hashd Al Shabi blamed for hindering the government’s efforts to re-establish stability in the country that is roiled by a combination of economic hardships and an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“What is happening in Iraq gives rise to feelings of sadness and sarcasm as much as the coronavirus claims more Iraqi lives,” wrote Ali Hussain, the editor of the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada. “The scene appears extremely contradictory and sarcastic. Armed groups insist on having the right to continue the game of firing rockets and terrifying entire cities, while the citizen is looking for a remedy to keep the corona evil at bay,” he added.
“They’ll tell you that these rockets aim at expelling the Americans, but you must know they are liars. The Americans here are the mere tree behind which lies the ultimate aim, namely to finish off any dream to build a state of citizenship, stability and welfare,” Hussain argued.
Pro-Iran Iraqi leaders have repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of approximately 2,500 US military personnel who are still in the country as part of an international alliance fighting Daesh terrorists.
What is happening in Iraq gives rise to feelings of sadness and sarcasm as much as the coronavirus claims more Iraqi lives. The scene appears extremely contradictory and sarcastic. Armed groups insist on having the right to continue the game of firing rockets and terrifying entire cities, while the citizen is looking for a remedy to keep the corona evil at bay.
Determined to end US military presence
“We confirm the right of the resistance [groups] to terminate the presence of the US military forces while preserving the state authority by not targeting diplomatic missions,” said Qais Al Khazali, the leader of the Iran-allied Iraqi group As’aib Ahl Al Haq or the League of the Righteous.
Early last year, the Iraqi parliament voted for the departure of the US-led coalition forces from the country. The step came after a US airstrike killed top Iranian commander Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the deputy commander of Al Hashd Al Shabi, near the Baghdad airport.
Soleimani was the chief of Iran’s self-styled Quds Force affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard that has forged strong links with Tehran’s proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
“The decision on the departure of foreign troops from Iraq is an Iraqi issue,” said Mohammed Al Bildawi, an Iraqi lawmaker linked to the League of the Righteous militia. ”If the political efforts of the government did not succeed in getting them out, we would resort to resistance to evict them,” he added.
Claiming a “relation of understanding” with Biden, ex-Iraqi premier Nuri Al Maliki this week told a local TV station that he expects the new US administration will initiate negotiations with Iran, a step he said will be to Iraq’s benefit by descalating US-Tehran tensions.
• June 2020: Iraqi and US officials kick off strategic dialogue talks online, discussing the future of US forces in Iraq.
• August 2020: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi visits Washington and announces that the US will withdraw its forces from his country in the next three years. The same month, the US-led forces handed over a military site, north of Baghdad, to the Iraqi army.
• September 2020: Al Kadhimi says neither the US nor Iran wants to make Iraq a battleground for their rivalries.
• November 2020: The US declares reducing its troop levels in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500 by mid-January. Al Kadhimi congratulates Joe Biden on winning the US presidential election, saying he looks forward to stronger “strategic relations based on mutual respect”.
• February 2021: A complex housing US-led forces in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan comes under a rocket attack, killing one civilian contractor and injured a US service member and several American contractors. A little-known group aligned with Iran claims responsibility. Following the attack, US Secretary of State calls Al Kadhimi, pledges support for investigations and holding accountable those responsible.