A deadly rocket salvo being blamed on Iran-allied Shiite forces in Iraq is raising questions of how far Tehran is willing to provoke the new Biden administration prior to any negotiations over restarting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
A non-U.S. contractor was killed and more than a half-dozen others — including an American service member — were wounded in the attack late Monday night at an airport in the Kurdish-controlled northern part of Iraq that lies close to a U.S. military base.
A similar attack that killed an American contractor in Iraq just over a year ago was the immediate catalyst for President Trump’s order for an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in early January and put the U.S. and Iran on the brink of open warfare.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR in an interview that the attack was outrageous, but added it was too soon to say whether Iran, which has deep ties to Iraq‘s powerful Shiite militia groups, played any role.
“Certainly we’ve seen these attacks in the past,” Mr. Blinken said. “We’ve seen Iraqi militia, Iranian-backed militia in many cases, be responsible. But to date, it’s too early to know who is responsible for this one.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Tuesday condemned the attack during a telephone call with his Iraqi counterpart, Minister of Defense Jumaah Saadoon.
A previously obscure militia group, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, claimed responsibility for the attack, but U.S. officials say that they are still working to confirm that.
The attack drew instant comparisons to the Dec. 27, 2019, rocket attack on a base in Iraq‘s Kirkuk province that killed an American civilian contractor and injured four members of the U.S. military.
“Iran and its proxies, which are likely behind this attack, are waiting to see how the Biden team will respond,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Mr. Trump set a clear policy of retaliation based on whether a U.S. citizen was killed or wounded.
“At least there was a clear attempt at establishing a deterrent,” Mr. Taleblu said. ” … There is linkage whether [U.S. officials] choose to see it or not,” he said.
Officials with Operation Inherent Resolve — the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State — said the attackers fired 14 107-mm rockets at the military base in Irbil with three landing within the camp. Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesman for the coalition, said the Kurdistan Regional Government is leading the investigation into the barrage.
While he wouldn’t confirm the attack came on orders from Tehran, Mr. Blinken noted that Iran-backed militias have been responsible for several such strikes in the past.
“But, to date, it’s too early to know who’s responsible for this one,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the attack demonstrates the importance of cooperation between Iraq‘s security forces and Iraqi Kurdistan.
“The Iraqi people have suffered for too long under these kinds of brazen acts of violence, which only serve to undermine the sovereignty and stability of their nation,” Mr. Menendez said.
Mr. Trump oversaw a significant drawdown in U.S. forces in Iraq in his final year in office, going from more than 5,000 to the current 2,500. Dan Caldwell, a former Marine now with the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, said Monday’s attack was a reminder U.S. troops remain in harm’s way despite the reduced numbers.
“ISIS is defeated and that was our primary mission in Iraq,” said Mr. Caldwell. “We need to step back and assess whether or not it’s in our interest to continue to have Americas exposed to attack.
There appears to be mixed messages coming out of the administration regarding America’s continuing activity in the Middle East. While President Biden says he wants to shut down “endless wars” and bring American troops home, some of his advisers and staffers seemed to be implying that the U.S. presence there may be longer, Mr. Caldwell said.
That, he added, hands adversaries like the Shiite militias the military initiative.
“It allows them to meddle with us ‘on the cheap,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to launch a 107 mm rocket at a [land base] to kill and wound Americans than it is to try and sink an aircraft carrier,” he said. “But, it is hard to tell how Biden is going to respond.”
In an address to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Richard Mills said the Biden administration‘s top priorities in Iraq were dealing with the lingering threat from ISIS and the destabilizing impact of the Iranian-backed militia movement that has resisted central government control.