In mid-March the US Defense Department announced its air forces had carried out "defensive" raids on five targets belonging to armed factions on Iraqi and Syrian territory in response to the attacks that targeted US bases in Kirkuk. The widely-condemned move came in the wake of a missile strike that targeted the K-1 base in Kirkuk where US forces are located.
On December 27 the previous year an American civilian contractor was killed and other and US military personnel wounded in a rocket attack, the direct US response to which had come within hours, targeting the Iraqi Popular Mobilization factions on the Iraqi-Syrian border with a drone missile which resulted in 25 deaths and left dozens more injured.
The escalation between the two parties did not end there. Thousands of Popular Mobilization supporters demonstrated in front of the US Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve. The Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilization Committee, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the leader of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais Al-Khazali, and the leader of the Fatah Alliance, Hadi Al-Amiri, participated alongside other figures in a funeral procession for those killed in the US strikes. During the protests a number of people stormed the security fence of the embassy, smashed its outer glass and wrote the phrases "Soleimani is My Leader" and "Death to America" on the walls.
The US waited just three days before carrying out a drone strike flying close to Baghdad airport which resulted in the death of the Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, and the Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. The Pentagon stated afterwards that the strike had come on the direct orders of US President Donald Trump.
This marked a new approach to the conflict between the United States and Iran. It also compelled a response from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], which launched a number of ballistic missile strikes on two US bases – Ayn Al-Asad in Al-Anbar and Harir base in Erbil – resulting in only minor injuries to some US army members.
However, at the same time, Iran has used Iraqi forces loyal to Tehran more than 20 times in order to bomb a number of US bases as well as the embassy’s headquarters in Iraq. The issue has caused the United States to withdraw its forces from some bases and install its Patriot air defense system close to the bases of Ayn Al-Asad and Harir.
Withdrawal and Repositioning
Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the coalition forces, confirmed in an interview with IranWire that the departure from some military bases comes as part of a long-term planned transition in light of the Iraqi security forces' success in fighting ISIS.
"The international coalition is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government," Caggins said. But more than 20 rogue militia attacks in recent months on Iraqi military bases hosting coalition forces have resulted in the deaths of Iraqis and members of the coalition forces, which in turn has led the forces to withdraw from some bases and be redeployed elsewhere in Iraq.
Security expert Hisham Al-Hashimi told IranWire that in his view, the most likely reason for the US withdrawal from some bases will have been to protect the coalition forces from the factions' attacks, which have escalated since January 3. This is especially likely as the Iraqi government's promise to pursue the cells possessing Katyusha rocket launchers is not wholly credible, due to its lack of capacity.
Factions Will Continue Targeting
Political analyst Dr Ihsan Al-Shummari told IranWire that he believes armed factions allied to Tehran are planning to target US forces if Al-Zurfi's government passes. In this event, he said, they would find themselves having to respond to the killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, as the leaders of these factions have acknowledged that the response to their deaths has not yet reached the necessary level.
Al-Shummari added that the armed factions have included the continuation of the US-Iranian conflict in their calculations, and that they, as an ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran, must plan a sustainable targeting operation against US interests. Therefore in the coming months, he said, "We will see US forces embarrassed inside Iraq.” Al-Shummari pointed out that the evidence for this can be seen in the United States' installation of the Patriot system “in expectation that it might be targeted by ballistic missiles similar to the Iranian missiles that struck the Ayn Al-Asad base”.
In an exclusive interview with IranWire, the Head of the Future Party, Intifad Qanbar, pointed out that the actions of the militias and armed factions in Iraq confirm that they intend to continue targeting US forces. The most recent statement issued by eight armed factions on April 5 also appears to corroborate this; it states that the nature of US President Donald Trump and his clear policy against Tehran differ from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose policy allowed for “Iranian expansion in Iraq and the region”, as Qanbar puts it.
Eight of the armed Shia factions loyal to Iran also made explicit threats, which coincided with the Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan Al-Zurfi's presentation of his government program to parliament, in which they warned MPs who support the Prime Minister-designate of consequences due to his links to the United States, while vowing to step up operations against US forces in Iraq.
The threat came days after a secret meeting was held between Soleimani's successor as commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Ismail Qaani, and a number of leaders from Shiite political blocs and armed factions.
In a tweet posted on April 1, US President Donald Trump warned Iran and its allies in Iraq against attacking US forces deployed in the country.
Based on information that Iran and its allies were planning a surprise attack targeting US forces or installations in Iraq, Trump added: "If that happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price."
Conversely one day after Trump's tweet, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, stated that the slightest attempt or premeditated intention aimed at compromising the security of the Islamic Republic would face an overwhelming response from Tehran.
In a statement quoted by the Iranian News Agency, IRNA, Bagheri added that in recent days an increase in US military movement in Iraq and the Gulf has been noted. He added that Iran is closely monitoring such movements and that all defenses are primed and ready to defend the country's borders.