Rocket Barrage Strikes Iraqi Base in Yet Another Attack on US, Coalition Forces
Experts say a limited American response can be expected, but no direct retaliation against Iran
At least 10 rockets hit Ain Al Asad Air Base, host to US, coalition and Iraqi troops, in western Iraq’s Anbar Province on Wednesday.
An American civilian contractor died of cardiac arrest as a result. The attack follows a string of recent rocket attacks on concentrations of US troops in Iraq. Experts say a limited American response can be expected, and that the Biden administration will continue on the diplomatic path with Iran.
The projectiles directly hurt no one and the physical damage was insignificant, according to reports. However, the civilian contractor “suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering” and later died, the US Defense Department said. The base is home to Iraqi soldiers, American troops and other forces belonging to the international coalition positioned in the region to fight Islamic State.
The Defense Department statement also said that “Iraqi security forces are on scene and investigating. We cannot attribute responsibility at this time, and we do not have a complete picture of the extent of the damage.”
The International Zone of Baghdad, aka the Green Zone, where the US Embassy is located, has been the target of repeated rocket attacks, most recently on February 22. On February 15, approximately 14 rockets struck Erbil, in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region. Three hit the city’s airport, which houses US forces, resulting in the death of a civilian contractor who worked with the international coalition. All in all, two people were killed in the attacks, and 13 others were wounded, including an American service member.
The US responded to these attacks on February 25 with airstrikes that targeted, as defined by President Joe Biden, “Iran-supported nonstate militia groups” in eastern Syria. The strikes were the first military attack of the current administration.
In response to the attack on Ain Al Asad Air Base, White House spokesperson Ned Price said in a news briefing on Wednesday, “We won’t preview any particular or specific response. But we have demonstrated our resolve to take necessary and proportionate action in self-defense where appropriate,” referring to the recent US strike in eastern Syria.
Price added, “We responded to recent attacks by Iran-backed militias on coalition US forces in a manner that was calculated, proportionate and fully covered by legal authorities. I think you will see the same hallmarks of any forthcoming responses.”
Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and is an expert on US Middle East and security policy, identifies Iran as the clear actor behind the attack.
“I think the US is going to be careful in responding; it will probably be a limited response, it will probably be tailored to deal more with the security problems the US faces in Iraq, than to attack the clearly Iranian target,” he told The Media Line.
A direct attack on Iran would probably fail to yield a solution to the situation, Cordesman explains.
“Simply attacking a low level Iranian military target will probably do more to unite the Iranian people behind the government, which isn’t very popular, then do anything to intimidate the government,” he says, “and if you carry out something that is a really major attack, you may end up simply escalating without any clear solution as to where you stop or having clear impact on continuing exchanges.”
Ain Al Asad Air Base was the target of an Iranian missile attack on January 8, 2020, which Tehran framed as a response to the US killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. A total of 110 US soldiers were wounded, but none were killed.
Col. (res.) Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, was formerly responsible for intelligence assessments in the Israeli military and the Prime Minister’s Office and is an expert on Middle East regional security and US policy in the area.
“I don’t think that we’re going to see another Qasem Soleimani tomorrow,” Shavit told The Media Line.
“A response against Iranian militias in Iraq is a possibility,” he says, but he is careful in projecting whether a direct response to the recent attack will be seen. “I wouldn’t rule out an American response. I don’t know if it will come tomorrow, and I don’t know if it will be because of this [attack] … but I wouldn’t rule out American retaliation, and even harsher reactions than what we’ve seen.”
Shavit does not connect the latest attacks with the current administration’s expressed wish to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“I don’t see a dramatic shift in the Iranian conduct,” he says. The Israeli expert explained that the White House would have to toe a fine line to realize its agenda. “On the one hand, the Americans want to return to the deal, and they’ve also said that in their view, diplomacy is stronger than using force.
“They want to renew the deal because” returning to it will allow them to reach a better agreement, Shavit explains. However, “it is clear to them that the militias and the Iranians are trying to push them into a corner and test them,” and it does not seem that this new administration will “let different actors harm its interests without responding.
“It’s a process and I think it will include both carrots and sticks, but this is the path I think it will take,” Shavit says.
Cordesman also sees future developments in US-Iran relations as a process.
“No matter what happens, it’s got to be a slow process,” he says. “No one could have expected Iran would suddenly open up and take a positive view of a US change in position which calls for negotiating some form of return to the JCPOA,” adds Cordesman, however, “Beginning some kind of process where you can limit escalation and eventually negotiate may be possible but even that’s unclear.
“I think that it is simply unrealistic at this point in time to assume that there’s going to be a solution to the tensions between Iran, the US and the Arab Gulf states. We may be able to negotiate one over time but as yet there is no clear indication as to how you do that,” the American policy expert continues.
“Sometimes you need to show a little strategic patience and assume that diplomacy takes time,” Cordesman says.