June 22, 2020

IntelBrief: Renewed Iran-Backed Attacks in Iraq Ratchet Up the Pressure

In this photo provided Thursday, June 18, 2020, by the Iranian Army, a missile is launched during a naval exercise. (Iranian Army via AP)
  • A new spate of Iran-backed attacks on key facilities in Iraq demonstrates that Iran remains undeterred by the potential for U.S. retaliation.
  • Iranian-backed strikes in Iraq suggest that Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is struggling in his efforts to rein in Iran-backed Shia militias under government control.
  • The timing of the new attacks to correspond with the start of a U.S.-Iraq ‘strategic dialogue’ indicates Tehran’s continued intent to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq and reduce Washington’s influence with Baghdad.
  • The Trump administration seeks to prevent further Iran-backed strikes by asserting that it is not affected by Iranian pressure and can escalate the use of force against Iran.

The June 18 rocket attack targeting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was the fifth attack in a ten-day period targeting installations where U.S. forces and government personnel operate. Of the five attacks, one targeted Baghdad International Airport and another was launched against Camp Taji, a military base north of Baghdad. The remaining three strikes targeted the so-called ‘Green Zone’ where Iraqi and U.S. government personnel, centered in the U.S. Embassy, are located. One of the attacks occurred on the eve of the June 11 U.S.-Iraq ‘strategic dialogue’ that was held to set the terms of the long-term U.S.-Iraq security, political, and economic relationship. The upsurge of rocket attacks, all presumably by Shia militias that report to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), occurred after a three month lull in such attacks, during which the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn in (May 7).  

The latest string of attacks calls into question the analysis of U.S. government and military officials and many experts that Iran has been ‘deterred’ by the U.S. strike in Iraq that killed IRGC-QF commander Qasem Soleimani and a key Iraqi Shia militia commander on January 3, 2020. In statements following the Soleimani strike, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Kenneth McKenzie and other U.S. commanders, assessed that Iran would resist further attacks on U.S. forces for fear of U.S. disproportionate retaliation. However, Gen. McKenzie appeared to back off that position after the latest in the series of Iran-backed attacks, stating on June 19 that the United States ‘controls the final steps in an escalatory ladder’ should Iran consider supporting larger scale provocations. Yet, the new rocket strikes might indicate that Iran does not fear U.S. escalation, and is instead willing to risk active hostilities that would undermine President Trump’s repeated promises not to draw the United States into another war in the Middle East.    

Even though none of the most recent attacks crossed the U.S. ‘red line’ by causing U.S. casualties, the rocket launchings clearly indicate that Iran is continuing to pursue its core objective – the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Previous attacks already contributed to the U.S. decision to consolidate its troops to about six more defensible bases. The U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue session on June 11 suggested that the Iranian goal might be within reach—a U.S.-Iraq concluding joint statement noted, ‘the U.S would continue reducing forces from Iraq and discuss with the Government of Iraq the status of remaining forces as both countries turn their focus towards developing a bilateral security relationship based on strong mutual interests.’ U.S. officials clarified that the timeline for completion of a U.S. withdrawal would be discussed at a follow-up session in July, and that it is likely that some U.S. trainers would remain in Iraq long term to help prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS), which some would argue is already underway. Recognizing that the renewed Iran-backed attacks will be perceived as driving an accelerated U.S. drawdown, Gen. McKenzie said on June 19: ‘We’re not going to quit the region in response to Iranian pressure.’

For Iraq, which is sandwiched between its two partners, Iran and the United States, the resumption of Iran-backed attacks represents a challenge to the new government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Immediately upon taking office in May, Kadhimi sought to bring Iran-backed Shia militia forces under government control. Whereas commanders of the Iran-backed militias initially indicated a willingness to work with Kadhimi, the new attacks indicate that such professions of cooperation were insincere. Kadhimi’s apparent inability to prevent Iran-backed militia attacks on facilities used by U.S. personnel - as well as an increase in Islamic State attacks throughout the country - is undermining his image as a strong leader only six weeks into his role as prime minister. After a promising start, Kadhimi might be succumbing to the same perception of impotence that brought down his predecessors. 


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