March 16, 2020
Three days of attacks between US-led coalition forces and Iran-backed Iraqi militias continued with the second attack in a week on the coalition base at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.
Missiles were fired at the base after US warplanes conducted a series of airstrikes on Iraqi militia positions in the provinces of Babil and Karbala on Thursday night.
The strikes came in retaliation for a missile attack on Camp Taji on Wednesday, on what would have been the birthday of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad in January.
Wednesday’s attack claimed the lives of two American soldiers — Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias and Marshal D. Roberts — and British Army reservist Brodie Gillon.
The Iraqi military said six people were killed in the US strikes, including three soldiers, two police officers and a civilian.
It added that the strikes had been launched against positions occupied by the paramilitary umbrella group Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, a wing of the Iraqi security forces that includes the militia Kataib Hezbollah.
Jamal Jafar Muhammad Ali Al-Ibrahim, former Al-Hashd deputy chief and Kataib Hezbollah commander, was one of the senior figures killed alongside Soleimani.
Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah confirmed that the militia was the target, saying the US had “conducted defensive precision strikes against Kataib Hezbollah facilities across Iraq.”
A senior US commander has accused the militia of being behind the attacks on Camp Taji. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, US Central Command chief, told a committee meeting of the US Senate: “The Iranian proxy group Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against US and coalition forces in Iraq.”
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab praised the decision to launch airstrikes on Al-Hashd positions on Thursday, having previously stated, after confirmation of Gillon’s death, that those responsible for the attacks would be “held responsible.”
Raab said in a statement: “The response to the cowardly attack on coalition forces in Iraq has been swift, decisive and proportionate.”
He added: “UK forces are in Iraq with coalition partners to help the country counter-terrorist activity and anyone seeking to harm them can expect a strong response.”
However, the UK’s ability to hold people to account is complex, bound up in a multitude of issues including rules of engagement and interaction with coalition partners.
The UK’s role in the strikes is unclear — various sources, including USA Today, claimed that the airstrikes were “a joint operation with the British,” though US President Donald Trump is known to have given the final go ahead.
“We didn’t launch the strike,” a UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) spokesman told Arab News.
Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said coordinated military responses with the US are the most likely course of action the UK will take.
“There are many ways that you can hold people to account. I think it’s a combination of messaging and action, and because we lost service personnel and we have joint operations going on in Anbar and the Kurdistan region as well, I don’t think it’s unusual, necessarily, to have a combination of US and UK activity,” he told Arab News.
“You can have UK assets doing ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) whilst the US carries out the strike or vice versa, or you can have ad hoc missions. It’s not unusual for the UK to be involved in ‘kinetic activity’ in Iraq,” he said.
“The lines are quite grey in terms of ‘is this going to be a UK-only response.’ It doesn’t really work like that. It’s more fluid, and it can simply be a day-to-day set of calculations that determine how we (the coalition) respond.”
Part of the complexity revolves around the fact that Al-Hashd is technically part of the Iraqi security forces, blurring lines about chains of command and responsibility. Stephens was scathing about the ability of diplomatic routes to resolve the situation.
“In terms of diplomatic pressure, the Iraqi government has absolutely no ability to respond when it comes to Kataib Hezbollah or Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in general,” he said.
“I think this is something that a lot of countries are trying to work on, in terms of building the resilience of the Iraqi state,” he added.
“Vis-a-vis Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, there’s not much you can do. If you start threatening more coercive diplomatic tactics or sanctions, you’re effectively just making a lot of innocent Iraqis suffer. It can be counterproductive, and the problem you’ve got is this very strange legal status for Al-Hashd, which just sort of attaches to the state when it wants to, and behaves as if it’s not part of the state at other times,” Stephens said.
“That’s a highly complicated equation. If you’re putting pressure on Baghdad, you may not get a result because Baghdad is both unwilling to do it and doesn’t have the actual leverage to do it either. You’ve then got to apply diplomatic pressure that doesn’t make the situation more difficult.”
Military responses range in terms of method and intention. A source familiar with UK foreign policy told Arab News on condition of anonymity: “It can range from a Reaper (drone) to a team, and it can be subtle or it can be ‘shock and awe.’ Both have their uses, but the overarching message is clear: If US or UK forces want you, they’ll find you. How obvious they make it depends on the message they wish to send to other actors.”
Stephens suggested that may have been behind the very public way the coalition had struck Kataib Hezbollah.
“A straight military response (like this) shows ‘escalation dominance — they kill three, we kill 25.’ I don’t really think there’s any other way to deal with this,” he said.
“It makes sense to simply increase the cost on these militias. If they go outside the remit of the state — and their strikes kill Iraqi service personnel as well — they’re hurting themselves. But of course these militias are only thinking about themselves, not the wider Iraqi question.”
In terms of what might follow the latest attack on Camp Taji, Stephens believed little would change.
“That’s the response. I think more will come. Sure, summon the British ambassador, summon the US ambassador, but that won’t stop what’s going on here,” he said.
“Eventually I think this will come to a head and both sides will have to climb down when they realize the cost is getting too high politically — and from the militia’s side, they just lose too many people.”
The anonymous source said: “You simply won’t know the full extent of what’s going on. That’s the thing about secret military operations — they tend to stay that way.”
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not comment on whether the government had tried to undertake a diplomatic route in identifying the attackers.
The MoD declined to comment on whether the coalition had relayed its intention to the Iraqi government to strike Al-Hashd targets prior to the attack. “But we’re in constant communication,” its spokesman told Arab News.