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Iranian-backed militias likely behind deadly rocket attack on U.S.-led base, experts say

For the administration “right now it's convenient to not know who did this attack," said Michael Knights of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Image: A man is treated at a hospital after he was injured in a rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Irbil International Airport
A man is treated at a hospital after he was injured in a rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Irbil International Airport in Iraq on Feb. 16, 2021.Azad Lashkari / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were most likely behind a deadly rocket barrage on a U.S.-led coalition base in northern Iraq earlier this week, but it's not clear whether Iran had any role in directing the attack, experts and a U.S. official said on Friday.

The attack on Irbil on Monday in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq bore the telltale signs of the Shiite militias supported by Iran, with tactics, weapons and online posts that resembled previous assaults on U.S. targets in Iraq, a current U.S. official, a former senior U.S. diplomat, and a regional expert told NBC News.

Iran said on Tuesday it had no links with the group that claimed to have carried out the attack.

"Iran considers Iraq's stability and security as a key issue for the region … and rejects any action that disturbs the peace and order in that country," said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, according to state media. He condemned what he called "suspicious attempts to attribute (the attack) to Iran."

A U.S. official familiar with the matter, as well as other regional experts, said it was unclear whether Iran directed or encouraged its militia allies to carry out the attack.

But Douglas Silliman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, said, "I have no doubt who's behind it. It is the Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias who are behind this."

"This was a seriously planned attack using the military experience that Shia militias have gained over the past decade in the fight against ISIS and the training from Iran, and using weapons, almost certainly supplied by Iran," the former diplomat said.

The attack featured at least 14 107mm rockets, a favored weapon supplied by Iran to the militias for more than a decade, launched from a truck. At least two rockets struck inside the heavily guarded base that includes Irbil's civilian international airport, according to the Pentagon.

An obscure group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or Custodians of the Blood, claimed responsibility for the attack that killed a civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops. But Silliman and other experts said the group was merely a front organization created by the main Shiite militias.

The militias "have created a number of these smaller groups to try to avoid any responsibility for the use of violence," said Silliman, now president of the Arab Gulf States Institute think tank in Washington.

Despite parallels to previous rocket attacks, Biden administration officials have yet to say publicly who they believe is responsible.

"We continue to consult with our Iraqi partners and their efforts to investigate the attacks," Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Jessica McNulty said.

The attack came at a delicate diplomatic moment as President Joe Biden seeks to launch talks with Tehran that could see the U.S. re-enter the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal and re-imposed U.S. economic sanctions that had been lifted under the terms of the agreement, known as the JCPOA.

For the administration, "right now it's convenient to not know who did this attack, and it would be inconvenient to know who did do this attack," said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank who tracks militant groups in Iraq.

Silliman said it would strike him "as a bad negotiating tactic for the Iranians to start shooting at American forces just as President Biden is attempting to find a way back into the JCPOA. But It is also well within the possibility for groups supplied and trained by Iran to have done it on their own."

It was possible the attack was an attempt by a militia group to assert itself amid a growing rivalry among the Iranian-backed forces, according to Knights, who has advised the U.S. military and governments in the Middle East on security issues.

Since a U.S. drone strike in January 2020 that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and a senior leader of one of the main Iraqi Shiite militia groups, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a power struggle has played out among the different militias supported by Iran, he said.

Knights said Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or AAH, one of three main militia groups, was most likely responsible for the rocket barrage. The group has emerged as "a very aggressive, ambitious, new force, and they're trying to become permanent," he said.

Thirteen minutes before the attack, another group linked to the Iranian-linked militias sent out a cryptic note on social media that appeared to foreshadow the possible targeting of Kurds, levelling criticism at the Kurdish regional government, Knights said.

Only 23 minutes after the attack, the first propaganda images of the barrage were posted on Sabereen, a media outlet linked to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Knights said.

The rocket attack on Monday originated from the same area as a previous rocket attack on Irbil last year, he added.

Knight said that previous U.S. administrations have sometimes tolerated violence by Iranian-backed proxies to avoid derailing diplomatic initiatives, but he argued that Washington should send a signal it won't tolerate further attacks, even if it's unclear whether Tehran gave the green light.

It doesn't matter if Iran ordered the attack or not, he said. "The point is the Biden administration can say to the Iranians, 'Don't do this anymore, or we won't talk,'" Knights said.