For the third day in a row, US bases in Iraq were the target of rocket attacks.
No one has claimed responsibility for the latest wave of attacks, which so far have not proven to be deadly, but the United States has consistently accused Iranian-backed militias of attacking American interests by Iraq.
The question now – as the attacks escalate – is President Biden going to do about it?
The Biden administration faces a Herculean task dealing with these incidents, in part because it ended up with a plan from the last administration that sought retaliation whenever U.S. personnel were killed.
When an American contractor was killed in a 2019 rocket attack targeting a K-1 base – which the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah – American forces carried out retaliatory airstrikes against militants backed by the United States. Iran in December, triggering a cycle of violent returns to counter-clashes.
Within days, the U.S. Embassy was hit by protests, the Americans forcibly killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, and Iran fired. ballistic. missiles at Al-Asad base, where US troops were stationed, in January 2020.
This cycle is one the Biden administration wants to avoid. And while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin insisted that the United States will defend its forces in Iraq, its troops are cornered in weeks like this when rocket attacks hit three American positions. Rockets were fired at Ayn al Asad air base in western Iraq on Tuesday, there was an attack on Balad air base north of Baghdad which houses US contractors on Monday and another on the US base at Baghdad airport on Sunday.
The Biden administration doesn’t want to rush into a violent response, but they don’t want to appear to be doing nothing. That is why State Department and Pentagon officials often dodge questions about the specific groups responsible for a given attack and how they intend to respond. If they do not name the culprit, it is not their responsibility to answer.
In February, the United States launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to a previous attack on American forces.
It was an example of the delicate balance the United States so desperately tries to perfect: respond without escalating. By attacking Iranian-backed forces in Syria, the United States has not violated Iraqi sovereignty, which is a sensitive issue in Iraq and has led to calls for the United States to leave. US forces are in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad to help fight Daesh. When the Trump administration hinted in December 2018 that the United States could pull out of Syria and use Iraq to “look“Iran, many Iraqi politicians were stunned by the proposal.
During the war against ISIS, a difficult truce existed between the United States and Iran. When the deal with Iran was being worked out in 2015, US-led coalition forces came to Iraq to help train, equip, advise, and help Iraqis repel ISIS. . But in 2017, with Trump in power and ISIS largely defeated in Iraq, tensions began to escalate between American and pro-Iranian politicians in Iraq.
The Badr Organization, whose leader Hadi al-Amiri served alongside the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, they called on the United States to leave. Qais Khazali, a militia leader who had previously been detained by the United States at Camp Cropper, amplified the threats against the United States.
In May 2019, rocket attacks – often using 107mm rockets linked to Iran – targeted the US Embassy in Baghdad, a US facility at Baghdad International Airport, and US forces at Camp Taji and other bases. By July Attacks in 2020 have increased to weekly incidents, and the United States sent air defense, including patriots, to Iraq to protect against ballistic missile threats from Iran.
This could mean that pro-Iranian groups in Iraq are seeking some sort of maximum pressure campaign against the United States, in the same vein as the Trump administration’s maximum pressure on Iran.
This puts the Biden administration in a precarious position. Unlike Afghanistan – where the United States is withdrawing – it wants to maintain a presence in Iraq, and today American troops have been withdrawn and consolidated in more easily defended places, in part because of the frequent attacks. Consolidation means fewer potential targets and remaining strengths K-1, Q-West, Camp Taji and a series of other articles in 2020.
Yet the recent attacks of the past three months show just how vulnerable US forces are, no matter what consolidation tactics they adopt. The message appears to be that Iranian-backed forces will continue to strike wherever US forces are located, whether at the massive Assad base or in Erbil.
The White House is left with several options in response. He can hold Iran directly responsible, but that could lead to military escalation. He can also use the attacks as leverage to strike a new regional deal with Iran, forcing them to cease as part of the deal.
Alternatively, he could demand that these groups be held accountable by the Iraqi authorities, but the record of such investigations is grim. No militia has ever been indicted for these attacks by the government, which is often reluctant to prosecute these groups because of their ties to powerful political parties that have threatened Iraq. President and Prime Minister in the past.
The last two options are to step up US airstrikes in Syria to punish groups linked to Iran, or do nothing at all. Doing nothing means letting pro-Iranian groups dictate the pace and escalation of the conflict. More airstrikes are likely to appear to act without sending a serious message to Iran. Small “tit-for-tat” attacks will not push Iran to reconsider its policy of harassing American forces in Iraq.
The Trump administration has attempted to raise the bar by retaliating in response to any casualties, which has led to dozens of attacks by militias. Before Trump, other American administrations preferred to err on the side of doing nothing, putting the United States on its back and giving the upper hand to pro-Iranian groups.
The White House faces two loaded questions here. Are the attacks in Iraq a purely Iraqi problem, with a local solution? Or does the goal of stopping the attacks in Tehran require a regional approach that resolves tensions from Yemen to Syria, from Lebanon to Israel? Either path presents the administration with challenges that three previous administrations have not been able to resolve.