US sees ‘serious threat’ in attacks in Iraq, Syria but unsure what to do

Washington is yet to offer a clear strategy or project a strong political will to deal with the provocations by pro-Iran factions.
Friday 09/07/2021
A 2018 file photo shows US Army soldiers conducting a mortar exercise at a small coalition outpost in western Iraq near the border with Syria. (AP)
A 2018 file photo shows US Army soldiers conducting a mortar exercise at a small coalition outpost in western Iraq near the border with Syria. (AP)

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said on Thursday it was deeply concerned about a series of attacks on US personnel in Iraq and Syria in recent days.

US diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks on Wednesday alone, including at least 14 rockets hitting an Iraqi air base hosting US forces, wounding two American service members.

While there were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks, part of a wave targeting US troops or areas where they are based in Iraq and Syria, analysts believed they were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias.

“They are using lethal weaponry. I don’t know how you can say anything other than it is a serious threat,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran vowed to retaliate after US strikes on the Iraqi-Syrian border killed four of their members last month.

Iran denied supporting attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria and condemned US air strikes on Iranian-backed groups. Its proxies in Iraq remain the prime suspects, nonetheless.

Iraq, long an arena for bitter rivalry between the US and Iran despite their shared enmity towards the Islamist State (ISIS) extremist group, has seen growing numbers of rocket and drone attacks on American targets in recent months.

The last few days have witnessed repeated attacks on US interests in the west, Iraqi Kurdistan in the north and the US embassy in Baghdad.

Some have been claimed by previously unknown groups demanding the departure of the “American occupier”, or promising to avenge the deaths of comrades killed in US strikes.

But observers blame them on existing pro-Iranian factions, operating under the umbrella of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) paramilitary alliance formed to fight ISIS.

Commanders from the Hashed, which is integrated into state forces and has become a major political player, often praise the attacks, without ever claiming responsibility.

The Hashed has vowed revenge for the deaths of its forces in US strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Experts warn that, the attacks have turned into a dangerous tit-for-tat violence.

One senior US military official warned that Iraqi armed groups “are playing with fire”.

But Washington is yet to offer a clear strategy or project a strong political will to deal with the provocations. The ongoing talks about Iran’s nuclear programme and the promise of an end to the US sanctions have not lowered the Iraqi militants’ escalation.

The United States has been holding indirect talks with Iran aimed at bringing both nations back into compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was abandoned by then-President Donald Trump. No date has been set for a next round of the talks, which adjourned on June 20.

— Endless cycle —

“We can expect the cycle to continue”, said Marsin Alshamary, an Iraq specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank.

Pro-Iranian forces have carried out dozens of attacks against US interests in Iraq since the start of the year, mainly as shows of force.

Iraq researcher Hamdi Malik of the Washington Institute said recent attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Eastern Syria were a way of bolstering support and competing for influence. Nothing works better than targeting the US, experts say.

Pro-Iranian groups suffered a heavy blow in January last year with the US killing of Iran’s revered commander Qasem Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

“By not acting when more of their people are killed, (pro-Iran groups) risk losing their credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of their own bases,” Malik said.

They are also cautious of “losing respect in the eyes of other components of the ‘axis of resistance’ in other countries in the region,” he said, referring to pro-Iranian forces in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

On the other side, Washington “is trying to curb the influence and the authority of these militias,” said Alshamary.

The Iraqi state has repeatedly condemned the rocket and drone attacks, but has been unable to put any of the perpetrators on trial, Alshamary said.

Such incidents have escalated in Iraq and Syria even as the US and Iran conduct delicate negotiations aimed at reviving a 2015 accord on Tehran’s nuclear activities, scuppered by the Trump administration in 2018.