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 the embassy 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. It is not unprecedented though. Since 2018, there has been an uptick in threats and attacks against the US in Iraq. This increased rapidly in May 2019, and by December 2019, there were numerous attacks on bases where US forces were located. The Trump administration responded by consolidating bases and moving troops to the autonomous Kurdish region in the North, 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. It is pro-Iranian militias that are likely behind the recent three attacks.

The way Iran operates in Iraq is complex. It has IRGC Quds Force members who 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 the security forces. The PMU was raised to fight ISIS but includes a plethora of pro-Iranian groups who have fought the US in the past, or who fought alongside Iran. These include the Badr Organization. Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and others. Beginning in the spring of 2020, after the US killed Kataib Hezbollah’s leader and targeted thee groups for sanctions, a bunch of new groups appeared. These were cut-outs or fake groups that provide a cover and plausible deniability for Iran.

In the end of the day the type of munitions used in these attacks almost always are linked to Iran. They include the 107 mm rockets or 122 mm. They 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, for instance, is generally discounted because ISIS uses different methods. This means that it looks like three attacks by Iran in a week to see if the US administration will retaliate. The US says that it has not determined who is responsible.

It is important to note here that even if the US does identify a group, it may not be able or willing to link the group directly to Iranian handlers. This doesn’t mean intelligence doesn’t exist that might show that Iran orders these attacks. There are ways to collect such intelligence, depending on how Iran may guide the attacks. Not much is known though about how Iran actually runs its network of agents and militias in Iraq. The fact that the attacks since May 2019 are almost identical, using the same munitions, and with the culprits melting away after abandoning the vehicle where the rocket launcher is located, points to a hand that is state-guided. This is because random small militias doing this on their own would do it differently. Each militia would have its own method. They would make mistakes.

107 mm rocket launchers, aimed exactly at the right location often, are not easy to aim and get the target right. 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 government payroll may be involved.

The 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 in the past. But the US does not retaliate. The US agencies tasked with finding the culprits or 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 previous administration held Iran responsible for proxy attacks, but even 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.

Now it appears the attacks are rising again. Iran wants to see how the US will respond. Iran 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, the US soldiers in Erbil did show 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 return diplomats. It may aim at Balad Air Base to keep NATO from returning.

Source » jpost