Week of December 21, 2020 | Issue 16
Renewed targeting of US interests in Iraq
Date: December 20, 2020
Location: The United States’ Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq
Parties involved: US; Iraq; Iran-backed militias (Kataib Hezbollah, Qasim Al-Jabarin; Asaib Ahl al-Haq); Iran
The event: Eight rockets targeted the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone Sunday around 2100 local time. The attack was most likely led by the Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose leader Qais Khazali was arrested for his possible involvement. However, the embassy's C-RAM defence system shot down the rockets in midair causing only material damages in the neighbourhood. As the first anniversary of the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, which was directed by Washington is getting closer, attacks toward US soldiers and facilities in Iraq are becoming more intense.
The attack on the US embassy questioned the capacity of Iraq to counter Iran-backed militias on its ground while tensions keep rising between both sides. After the arrest of Qais Khazali a senior leader of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, Abu Ali al-Askari, threatened Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi "to cut his ears as the ears of a goat are cut" which led Iraq’s judiciary to address an arrest warrant against him. This internal instability is likely to affect the Iraqi relationship with the US and only increases hostilities with Iran. While the first death anniversary of General Qassem Suleimani on January 3, 2021 looms, it is crucial to remember the key timeline of events that led to his death a year ago.
On December 27, 2019, the militia group Kataib Hezbollah attacked the US K1 military base near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk with rockets, killing an American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi personnel. Kataib Hezbollah has ties to Iran but denied the attack. In response, the US bombed bases associated with the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in Western Iraq killing at least 25 fighters. Then Iraqi protesters angered by US airstrikes attacked the American embassy compound in Baghdad on December 31, 2019.
This timeline is a tool to understand the several attacks the US facilities are facing in Iraq but also to detect and prevent the next ones.
December 2020 and January 2021 are then high-risk months, for the security of the US in Iraq. CTG CENTCOM has reported attacks on US convoys during the week. The first one on December 23, a roadside bomb explosion on Hawali main road towards the province of Babil, near Baghdad. And then on Sunday, December 28, another roadside bomb hit a US convoy carrying logistic support on the international highway passing through Babil province. The second attack has been claimed by the Qasim Al-Jabarin faction, a group linked to the Iran-backed militias.
Despite the early decision of the US Embassy in Baghdad to withdraw some of its staff in early December, it continues to operate and likely remains a target for attacks. The US shall remain on alert and protect its facilities in Iraq, as the combination of recent events is pointing out toward them as a highly possible target. Although Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the assassination of the prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran on November 27, 2020, there is an increased risk that Iran or its proxies might retaliate against Western targets close to Israel.
The recent decision by President Trump to pardon the four Blackwater guards jailed over the opening fire in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in 2007, is likely to be seen as an insult to the memory of the 17 victims and it does not play in favour for the US presence in Iraq.
As the looming first anniversary of the killings of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, by the US on Iraqi ground, US’ facilities in Iraq are high-potential targets for terrorist attacks. Indeed, for the last couple of days, US convoys and the US Embassy in Iraq have faced several attacks. The US must stay on alert, and monitor the activities of identified Iran-backed militias previously engaged against US presence in Iraq while taking into account the combination of recent events that increase resentments against the US.
 The Arab Weekly, Kadhimi faces complex options dealing with pro-Iran militias, December 28, 2020
 The Baghdad Post, Pro-Iran militias threaten Iraqi PM not to test their patience, December 27, 2020 https://www.thebaghdadpost.com/en/Story/51164/Pro-Iran-militias-threaten-Iraqi-PM-not-to-test-their-patience
 Reuters, U.S. civilian contractor killed in Iraq base rocket attack: officials, December 27, 2019 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security-idUSKBN1YV1IX
 BBC, US Baghdad embassy attacked by protesters angry at air strikes, December 31, 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50956111
 Twitter account, 28 December 2020 https://twitter.com/mhmiranusa/status/1343247893369647105?s=20
 Sofia Barbarani, US ‘withdrawing some Baghdad embassy staff’ amid regional tension, Al Jazeera, December 3, 2020 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/3/us-to-withdraw-some-baghdad-embassy-staff-as-tensions-mounts