The American Embassy in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” was once again the target of rocket fire on Sunday. An American airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan was also targeted the day before. These latest attacks took place as tensions against the American presence in the Middle East continue to grow, especially with the approaching anniversary of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
The American airbase in Afghanistan was hit by five rockets launched by a nearby vehicle. The vehicle had been loaded with a dozen rockets but only fired the five that hit; the other seven misfired and were diffused by Afghan security forces.
No American personnel were injured in either attack, but there was some minor damage to the American Embassy compound. However, during the fusillade in Baghdad, an Iraqi soldier, who was manning a nearby checkpoint, was injured.
An Iraqi spokesman for President Barham Salih issued a statement saying that, “targeting the Green Zone is a terrorist act that endangers the security and lives of innocent citizens and their property.”
“It represents a targeting of the country’s sovereignty and national efforts to preserve the state’s prestige,” he added. “Targeting diplomatic missions undermines Iraq’s international reputation and its foreign relations.”
Witnesses reported that numerous alarm sirens were sounded and then the sky was filled with red tracers as the embassy’s C-RAM rocket defense system fired in response to the incoming rockets.
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At least three rockets landed inside the embassy grounds while residential buildings were also hit (see video below). No information on civilian casualties has been released yet.
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to point out that the blame should be squarely on the shoulders of Iran’s proxy militias. In a released statement, the secretary didn’t mince words.
“The United States strongly condemns the latest attack by Iran-backed militias on the International Zone in Baghdad. While no embassy personnel were harmed, the attack caused at least one Iraqi civilian casualty and damaged Iraqi civilian property,” Pompeo said.
“As Iraq struggles with Covid-19 and an increasingly dire economic crisis, Iran-backed militias are the most serious impediment to helping Iraq return to peace and prosperity.”
“The same militias targeting diplomatic facilities are stealing Iraqi state resources on a massive scale, attacking peaceful protesters and activists, and engaging in sectarian violence,” Pompeo added.
Secretary Pompeo’s statement is accurate. These militias, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), are more loyal to Iran’s Quds Force than to Iraq. They have made it clear that their mission is to force the U.S. military out of the Middle East. The most violent of these Iranian-backed groups is Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH).
The catch is that Iraqi military forces and these PMU militia groups are ostensibly on the same side in the fight against the Islamic State. Still, the militia have attacked the bases, which house the U.S.-led coalition troops, about three dozen times. On December 29, 2019, the U.S. retaliated by conducting airstrikes on their positions. Then, Kata’ib Hezbollah, along with the leader of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, protested outside the U.S Embassy before attacking it.
The U.S. then went straight for the source. In a drone strike in January, it killed al-Muhandis, the commander of PMU, and General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force as they arrived in Baghdad’s international airport.
In October, Kata’ib Hezbollah announced a “conditional” ceasefire against U.S.-linked interests in Iraq. The condition was that the U.S. present a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. But in November it attacked again. A Reuters report said that the November attack “was a clear sign that Iranian-backed militias had decided to resume attacks on U.S. bases.”
Yesterday’s attacks were more of the same. These militias are not military, thus, their members often act on their own volition. This has led Iraqi officials to pin the attack on an “outlaw group” rather than on the Iraqi PMU militias.
Kata’ib Hezbollah and its new leader, Qais al-Khazali, parroted the same line, stating that the militia had not conducted the latest rocket attack. They released a statement saying that the attack on the embassy was an “uncontrolled” act adding that the government needs to arrest the perpetrators.
“We condemn the indiscriminate attack against the U.S. Embassy, as it poses a threat to civilian lives,” a spokesperson for Kata’ib Hezbollah said. He then urged “the United States to suspend the military activities in the area for the residents’ safety.“
Kata’ib Hezbollah’s statement gives it immediate and plausible deniability. In such a frame any U.S. retaliation would be considered an escalation of violence.
The rocket attack against the American base in Bagram, Afghanistan can be seen from a similar viewpoint. While the Taliban may have a “peace agreement” with the U.S., they are in essence an organization of factions that will also act on their own at times. Nevertheless, in this case, ISIS may be behind the attack.
The next administration will no doubt have more of these “outlaw groups” and “uncontrolled” acts to deal with, especially as the anniversary of the assassinations of Solemani and al-Muhandis creeps closer.
Further, as the U.S withdrawal date in Iraq approaches, it’s highly likely that attacks on U.S. personnel will increase to give the impression that Iran and the PMUs have successfully chased the United States from the country.