WASHINGTON — More than eight months after a barrage of rockets killed an American contractor and wounded four American service members in Kirkuk, Iraq, militia groups continue to target U.S. military bases in that country, and the frequency of those attacks has increased.
"We have had more indirect fire attacks around and against our bases the first half of this year than we did the first half of last year," Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, said. "Those attacks have been higher."
"They have not been particularly lethal and that's a good thing, but they are continuing," he said during an exclusive interview with NBC News while traveling in the Middle East. Asked why the attacks have been less lethal, McKenzie said, "They're not hitting us."
McKenzie's comments came just hours after he announced the United States would be cutting its footprint in Iraq by almost half by the end of September, with about 2,200 troops leaving the country.
A defense official said the frequency of the attacks has increased over 2019, but the overall number of rockets in each attack is generally lower. In 2019, militia groups would often fire dozens of rockets in an assault, whereas this year most attacks include only a few rockets at a time.
"We know they have very good weapon systems and they are not employing their high-end weapon systems. They're employing things like 107 mm rockets and mortars, which are not as sophisticated as some of their other weapon systems they have," McKenzie said. "For whatever reason, it may be by design, we don't know, they're just not that successful at hitting anyone. And that's a blessing."
He added, "I don't know how long we can count on that continuing."
McKenzie said Iran's goal is to force the U.S. to leave the region. They've pursued political avenues this year, including trying to influence the Iraqi government to ask the Americans to leave. "It is now evident, at least to me, that that solution is not going to occur for them, that the government of Iraq sees the benefits of maintaining a long-term security relationship with the United States, with NATO, with our coalition partners," he said. "It doesn't mean it's going to be a big one but we are going to maintain a good security relationship with them."
"Now Iran needs to decide, are they going to continue this political angle which has not worked for them or are they going to shift to other things and see how those things work. Only time will tell but we are prepared for that."
The U.S. military brought in additional defensive capabilities, such as Patriot missile defense systems, to be ready if Iran were to take more aggressive actions to force the U.S. out of the area, McKenzie said. "We've done what we need to do to protect our forces."
McKenzie warns Iran could "pursue other objectives by inflicting a level of pain below what they think is the U.S. red line."
"That's very dangerous, because I don't think they have an appreciation for where our red line would be," he said. "They might believe they can continue to attack us with rockets and missiles in Iraq and we won't respond and that would be a very dangerous thing for them to believe."
"The decision to respond is not a military decision," he said. "The danger here is that Iran will not understand how provocative some of the things that they're doing could be."
While in Baghdad on Wednesday, McKenzie announced the U.S. military would decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from about 5,200 to roughly 3,000 by the end of this month. That decision, he explained, has been in the works for some time.
"We've been well on our way to this for a while," McKenzie said, explaining that the Iraqis have become more capable and are doing more operations on their own. "As a result of the Iraqis doing better, we are able to mentor them, to interact with them at a higher level, rather than accompanying them on all these operations."
The U.S. has been moving American forces out of bases around Iraq throughout 2020, consolidating them to a few locations, mainly in Baghdad, Irbil and out west at Ain al-Asad. Already in 2020, the U.S. has left al-Qaim, Qayyarah Airfield West, K-1 near Kirkuk, al Taqqadum, and Camp Taji.
McKenzie said that reducing the number of bases allowed U.S. forces to reduce their "attack surface," or decrease the number of possible targets, to defend better against rogue militia groups.
The December 2019 attack against the U.S. military in Kirkuk set off a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran, beginning with the U.S. killing the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and ending with Iran launching missiles at the al-Asad Airbase, inflicting traumatic brain injuries on dozens of U.S. service members.
McKenzie said the recent attacks are perpetrated by various militia groups and while not every one can be tied directly back to Iran, the nation still bears some responsibility.
"You wonder how much of that is directed by Iran, how much of that is by proxies on the ground that they have imperfect command and control of," McKenzie said. "The bottom line is, even if it's not directly ordered by Iran, they are using weapons that were typically provided to them by Iran at some point in the process, so there's a certain moral ownership of this even if Iran is not giving them instructions to do it."
As to whether the U.S. will respond to these attacks, McKenzie said, "I think the United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces in Iraq."