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Weekend Rockets Part of Iran-backed Pressure Campaign against US Troops in Iraq

Analyst: This is a kind of message that says, ‘We can strike at you and we know where you are’

A Saturday rocket attack on Iraq’s Taji training base, north of Baghdad, is likely part of a long line of attacks carried out by Iran-backed Iraqi proxies. These militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMFs, want to maintain pressure on the US troops, experts have told The Media Line.

Two Katyusha rockets were fired at Camp Taji in the evening. Neither succeeded in afflicting casualties on any of the American or Iraqi personnel at the base.

US troops are based in Taji, where they train Iraqi soldiers to fight against Islamic State.

Iran wants US troops to leave Iraq and other countries in the region. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared that “the Americans won’t stay in Iraq and Syria, and will be expelled.”

Iranian-backed militias have launched rocket attacks against bases hosting US troops, and against the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, the location of embassies and government offices, several times over the past year.

Most of the attacks have caused little damage and no casualties. However, a December 2019 attack on the K1 base in Kirkuk killed an American civilian contractor, and in March 2020, a rocket attack on Taji killed two American troops and one British soldier.

The US retaliated on both occasions with airstrikes targeting the Iran-backed Kataib al-Hizbullah group.

On January 3, a US drone strike just outside Baghdad’s international airport killed Qasem Soleimani, head of the extraterritorial Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Kataib al-Hizbullah.

“It appears [that Saturday’s] attack is similar to many in the past and that it is, therefore, likely to have been carried out by pro-Iranian groups,” said Seth J. Frantzman, author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.

“These attacks began in the spring of 2019 and increased with time until [they] led to the death of [the] contractor,” he told The Media Line.

Frantzman believes the attack was “symbolic” as well as “directly linked” to the anniversary of the June 2014 fatwa issued by the leading Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who advised Iraqis to back their government in its fight against ISIS but refrain from supporting Washington’s ongoing strategic dialogue with Baghdad.

“This is a kind of message that says, ‘We can strike at you and we know where you are,’” he noted.

Saturday’s attack came two days after Iraq and the US jointly reaffirmed that the latter would reduce the number of its troops in the country.

“Over the coming months, the US will continue reducing forces [in] Iraq and discuss with the Government of Iraq the status of remaining forces,” a joint statement said.

“Taji has been a frequent target, so the militants know the coordinates, layout and ground,” Frantzman said. “It may be that they want to send a message rather than provoke a response because US Central Command chief [Gen. Kenneth F.] McKenzie recently discussed the deterrence he has in place.”

He also believes that Tehran’s goal is not to provoke the US into staying in Iraq and possibly sending additional forces, but rather “to pressure it into deciding that it’s better to leave” than pose a risk to its forces.

“I suspect that the US will not want to withdraw under fire and appear weak, which would not be in line with President [Donald] Trump’s views,” Frantzman posited. “He opposes ‘endless wars,’ as he recently told a [graduating] class at West Point, but doesn’t like to be seen as running away. Iran likely understands this US posture.”

I suspect that the US will not want to withdraw under fire and appear weak, which would not be in line with President Trump’s views

Emily Hawthorn, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with Stratfor, an intelligence consultancy group, also believes that “based on the target and weapons used,” PMFs most likely executed Saturday’s attack.

“Like many of the attacks on US forces at Iraqi bases over the past year, the perpetrator likely wants to maintain some plausible deniability, but it’s impossible to hide all ties to Iran,” she told The Media Line.

While the US has long planned to draw down its troop presence in Iraq, Hawthorn anticipates that “pro-Iran Iraqi militias will champion any drawdown as a result of their actions, whether or not this is true,” adding: “This latest attack took place during the US-Iraq strategic dialogue, but Iran-backed militias in Iraq have sought to push the US out of Iraq for many years, so this is a recurring trend.”

Joel Wing, author of the “Musings on Iraq” blog, also sees a direct linkage between the timing of the rocket attack and the ongoing US-Iraq dialogue.

“The previous Status of Forces Agreement ended in 2011, and the Americans are currently in the country [at] the request of the Iraqi government,” he told The Media Line. “Just before the talks began, pro-Iranian groups began lobbing rockets once again.”

Wing interprets this as “a message from these groups and their sponsor that they can harass the Americans at will and… they are not welcome in Iraq.”

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Program manager at the Institute for the Study of War, emphasizes the importance of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, summing it up as “an opportunity for the United States to establish firm relations with Iraq and, especially, confirm a long-term US military advising role to help Iraq combat” what is left of ISIS.

“Iran does not want the strategic dialogue between the US and Iraq to succeed because the Iranians want to be the dominant foreign power in Iraq,” Heras told The Media Line. “Securing dominance over Iraq is a key component of Iran’s national security strategy.”