On December 29, 2019, in retaliation for a rocket attack two days earlier by the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah (KH) militia on the K-1 military base near Kirkuk that killed an American contractor, Air Force F-15E fighters struck three of the militia’s bases in Iraq and two more in Syria. The attacks left about twenty-five militiamen dead and more than fifty wounded. The targets were KH storage facilities and command posts; Washington asserted that the command posts had masterminded a series of eleven rocket attacks that had culminated with the December 27 KH strike on the K-1 base.
Tehran did not waste much time responding to the American strike. One day later, led by its Iraqi puppets—notably Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh al Fayyad, and Hadi al Ameri, leader of the Shia Badr organization—rioters charged the American embassy compound, used makeshift battering rams to break down its outer doors and ransacked the facility’s entrance lobby.
Trump responded by issuing what he called “not a warning but a threat” that Tehran would be held accountable—and presumably be the target of American military retaliation—if American property were damaged or its citizens harmed. Tehran’s response was to encourage a second day of rioting. When Washington deployed the 82nd airborne rapid response unit even as Marines were tear-gassing the rioters inside the embassy, the demonstrations abated, at least for the moment.
Iraqi military units did not intervene throughout the two days of riots. Though some officers evinced concern for the safety of the American diplomats, it was clear that the Iraqi government simply was unwilling, or fearful, of confronting Tehran’s minions head-on. It was the most graphic evidence of what has long been recognized throughout the region, if not in Washington: It is Iran, not America, that calls the shots in Baghdad.
The man behind Tehran’s strategy in Iraq, as he has been in Syria, is almost surely Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds force, Tehran’s shock troops. Soleimani has had free reign in Iraq for some time. It is likely that the leaders of the Iranian-dominated militias, the Hashd al Shabi (Popular Mobilization Units)—of which the KH is a component force—answer to him. He surely wants Trump to respond with more than threats, or even tear gas.