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For the third day in a row, U.S. bases in Iraq have come under fire from rocket attacks.
No one has claimed responsibility for the latest spate of attacks, which has not proved deadly so far, but the U.S. has routinely accused Iran-backed militias of attacking American interests in Iraq.
The question now—as the attacks escalate—is what is President Joe Biden going to do about it?
The Biden administration faces a Herculean task in confronting these incidents, in part because it was left with a blueprint from the last administration that sought retaliation every time American personnel were killed.
When an American contractor was killed in a 2019 rocket attack targeting a K-1 base—which the U.S. blamed on Kataib Hezbollah—U.S. forces carried out retaliatory airstrikes against Iran-backed militants that December, setting off a cycle of violent back-to-back clashes.
Within days, the U.S. embassy was hit by protests, American forces killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, and Iran fired ballistic missiles at Al-Asad base, where U.S. troops were stationed, in January 2020.
That cycle is one that the Biden administration wants to avoid. And while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been adamant that the U.S. will defend its forces in Iraq, its troops are backed into a corner in weeks like this when rocket attacks strike three U.S. positions. Rockets were fired into the Ayn al Asad airbase in Western Iraq on Tuesday, there was an attack on the Balad air base north of Baghdad, which houses U.S. contractors on Monday, and another on the U.S. base at Baghdad airport on Sunday.
The Biden administration doesn’t want to rush into a violent response, but it doesn’t want to look like it’s doing nothing. That is why State Department and Pentagon officials often evade questions about which specific groups are responsible for a given attack, and how they intend to react. If they don’t name the culprit, then there is no onus on them to respond.
In February, the U.S. launched airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to a previous attack on American forces.
This was an example of the delicate balancing act the U.S. is so desperately trying to perfect: to respond without escalating. By attacking Iranian-backed forces in Syria, the U.S. did not violate Iraqi sovereignty, which is a sensitive issue in Iraq and has led to calls for the U.S. to leave. American forces are in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad to help fight ISIS. When the Trump administration hinted in December 2018 that the U.S. might withdraw from Syria and use Iraq to “watch” Iran, many Iraqi politicians were stunned by the proposal.
During the war against ISIS, an uneasy truce existed between the U.S. and Iran. When the Iran deal was in the works in 2015, U.S.-led Coalition forces came to Iraq to help train, equip, advise, and assist Iraqis to push back ISIS. But by 2017, with Trump in office and ISIS largely defeated in Iraq, tensions began to grow between the U.S. and pro-Iranian politicians in Iraq.
The Badr Organization, whose leader Hadi al-Amiri served alongside the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, called for the U.S. to leave. Qais Khazali, a militia leader who had once been detained by the U.S. at Camp Cropper, amplified threats against the U.S.
By May 2019, rocket attacks—often using 107mm rockets linked to Iran—were targeting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a U.S. facility at Baghdad International Airport, and U.S. forces at Camp Taji and other bases. By July 2020 attacks increased to weekly incidents, and the U.S. 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 a kind of maximum-pressure campaign against the U.S., similar to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure on Iran.
This puts the Biden administration in a precarious position. Unlike in Afghanistan—where the U.S. is withdrawing—it wants to preserve a presence in Iraq, and today, American troops have been drawn down and consolidated in more easily defended locations, in part due to the frequent attacks. Consolidation means fewer potential targets, and forces left K-1, Q-West, Camp Taji, and a series of other posts in 2020.
Still, recent attacks in the past three months show just how vulnerable U.S. forces are, regardless of the consolidation tactics they take. The message appears to be that Iranian-backed forces will continue to strike wherever U.S. forces are located, whether on the giant sprawling Asad base or in Erbil.
The White House is left with several options in response. It can hold Iran directly responsible, but that could lead to a military escalation. It can also use the attacks as leverage to levy a new regional Iran deal, requiring them to stop as part of the agreement.
Alternatively, it could demand these groups be held responsible by Iraqi authorities, but the track records of those investigations are bleak. No militias have ever been charged for these attacks by the government, which is often reluctant to prosecute these groups because of their links to powerful political parties who have threatened Iraq’s president and prime minister in the past.
The final two options are to escalate U.S. airstrikes in Syria to punish groups linked to Iran, or to do nothing at all. Doing nothing means letting pro-Iran groups dictate the tempo and escalation of the conflict. More airstrikes risk the appearance of taking action while failing to send a serious message to Iran. Small, tit-for-tat attacks will not make Iran reconsider its policy of harassing U.S. forces in Iraq.
The Trump administration tried to set the bar by retaliating in response to any casualties, which led to dozens of attacks by militias. Prior to Trump, other U.S. administrations preferred to err on the side of doing nothing, putting the U.S. on the backfoot and giving pro-Iranian groups the upper hand.
The White House is facing two loaded questions here. Are the attacks in Iraq a purely Iraqi problem, with a local solution? Or is the goal to stop the attacks in Tehran, requiring a regional approach that would address tensions from Yemen to Syria, Lebanon to Israel? Either path presents the administration with challenges that three previous administrations haven’t been able to solve.