By Track Persia
February 24, 2021
Two rockets landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone housing foreign embassies on Monday evening. According to Iraqi security sources, a third rocket fell just west of the Green Zone in the neighbouring area of Harithiya. No casualties have been reported so far and the rockets’ launcher was found in the southwest of the city centre in al-Salaam neighbourhood according to these sources.
Biden officials said the intelligence does not yet point to a clear culprit and indicated they would let the Iraqis lead the investigation and any military response. For his part, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby on Monday declined to answer a question about whether U.S. officials planned to communicate to Iran that killing an American is a red line, as the previous administration did.”
Last Saturday, at least four rockets landed at Iraq’s Balad airbase, wounding a contractor working for an American company that services Iraq’s F-16 jet fighters. Similarly, on 15 February, Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, was struck with a heavy rocket attack, leading to the killing of one foreign contractor working for the U.S.-led coalition troops at Erbil Airport. The attack also wounded five more Coalition personnel, including an American soldier and also at least three local civilians. A Barrage of twenty-eight rockets was reported to have been fired from a disguised launch vehicle close to an agricultural market southwest of Erbil. The causalities are low given more than a dozen of the launched rockets landed in the densely populated city of Erbil.
The recent attack on Erbil was not unprecedented as a similar attack, though on a smaller scale, occurred on 30 September when Erbil Airport was attacked by long-range rockets launched from outside Kurdistan in the east of the northern city of Mosul which is controlled by Iran-backed Shiite militias. A supposed militia group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of the Blood Brigade) claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, the militia group proved it is just a media brand using a Telegram channel and a few tweets, though it had claimed a roadside bombing of a coalition contractor vehicle in southern Iraq on 25 January 2021. Most importantly, the group has been reported to have been a front for the main suspect, an Iran-backed Shiite militia known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) which the Trump administration on 3 January 2020 designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.
It is worth noting that another AAH front militia using the logo ‘Ashab al-Kahf’ (Companions of the Cave) also claimed responsibility for an attack at a Turkish base in northern Iraq at the end of the day. Some experts also suspect that Saraya Awliya al-Dam is a front for another group known as Kataib Hezbollah, the most powerful Iran-allied Shiite militia in Iraq.
It appears that the purpose of using fictitious names by these Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq is to avoid prosecution of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella of predominately Iran-allied Shiite militias which are officially part of Iraqi armed forces, but in reality, they are loyal to Tehran rather than to Baghdad.
The recent attack on Erbil, according to this militia group, was a response to the Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish opposition ‘Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which Iran-backed militias are aligned with and is operating against Istanbul from Iraq’s Kurdistan region and Sinjar areas.
Looking closely at the descriptions of the attack on Erbil reveals interesting clues about justifications and motives behind this attack. In a clear sign to please Tehran, the militia group Saraya Awliya al-Dam claimed in a statement that its strikes had targeted Harir Air Base, a facility housing U.S. troops in Erbil located about thirty miles northeast of Erbil. This means the location far exceeds the range of its rockets. The militia warned that “there is no safe place for U.S. forces” in Kurdistan, echoing the justifications of previous attacks against U.S. interests in Erbil, particularly that it carried out in September 2020. Blaming the civilian causalities on the Americans by attributing them to the U.S. counterrocket interception systems demonstrates the false allegations of this militia group, given the U.S. systems were not activated when the attack occurred.
The response to the Erbil attack by the Biden administration was not unexpected. “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,” the White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
The attacks that have targeted American interests in Iraq over the last few months appear to be an Iranian message to two parties. One of them is Washington, to which Tehran’s massage says that Americans interests in Iraq are easy targets in case it decides to attack Iran. The other one is the Iraqi government, which Tehran wants to deter from taking a neutral position towards its relations with Washington.
However, these attacks are not intended to inflect losses among Americans in Iraq, but to send a message to the Biden administration. Tehran realises that Washington’s response could have devastating impacts on its existence. On December 27, 2019, a US contractor was killed and several military personnel were injured in a rocket attack in northern Iraq. Washington blamed Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitaries for the attack. Therefore, the Trump administration mounted a string of airstrikes against military facilities belonging to Kat’aib Hezbollah, a close Iran-allied Shiite militia operating within PMF. Some 25 militiamen were killed and 50 others injured in that attack, according to the militia. Storming the US embassy in Baghdad by these militias also led to the killing of Gen Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Quds Force, the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), near Baghdad Airport on 3 January 2020.
Despite Iran-backed militias in Iraq have repeatedly claimed responsibility for such attacks and have consistently demonstrated their appetite to mount more attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, the Biden administration has still had difficulty finding a resolute response to deter future attacks on U.S. citizens in Iraq. It appears that the administration in Washington has discerned the level of Tehran’s role in these attacks. Unlike Trump, Biden seems he is not able to craft a firm response to deter Tehran and this badly affect his credibility in the eyes of regional allies. Not holding Tehran responsible and accountable for such attacks, Washington will send a wrong message to Tehran that it accepts negotiations over its nuclear deal.
However, any thoughts of lifting or easing sanctions on Iran without conditions about a cessation of its proxy attacks including drone attacks on Riyadh such as those carried out by Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and the Houthi attacks on the Yemeni cabinet should be on indefinite hold. By adopting this strategy, the Biden administration would avoid repeating Obama’s costly mistake of trying to isolate Iran’s nuclear programme from its destabilising and damaging behaviour in the region. This strategy would erase the harmful impression that this new administration accepts to be blackmailed by Tehran.
By adopting a tendency of viewing such attacks as just a distraction from a much bigger issue such as the competition with China and Russia, the Biden administration misses the point because these world powers are watching carefully Washington’s response and draw their international policies accordingly. If left unchallenged, the attacks of Iran’s proxies in Iraq and the region will certainly continue.