WASHINGTON (AP) — Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria have long clashed with U.S. and coalition forces, launching sporadic attacks on bases in the region where forces are deployed to fight Islamic State militants.
But since October 17, when the number of civilian deaths in the Israeli war against Hamas began to skyrocket, there has been You’ve had a huge spike in attacks By Iranian agents, operating under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.
While most of the more than fifteen attacks were largely ineffective, at least 60 American soldiers reported minor casualties. These were mostly traumatic brain injuries caused by blasts, and all troops have returned to duty, according to the Pentagon.
In responding to the attacks, the United States walked a careful line. The US military has responded only three times as the Biden administration works to balance efforts to deter militants without provoking a broader conflict in the Middle East.
A look at the attacks and the American response:
Attacks – when, where and why
According to the Pentagon, Iranian-backed militants fired 61 missiles Attacks on bases and facilities housing US personnel in Iraq and Syria since October 17. Of these, 29 were in Iraq and 32 in Syria.
The United States has about 2,000 American soldiers in Iraq, under an agreement with the Baghdad government, and about 900 soldiers in Syria, mainly to confront ISIS, but also using the Al-Tanf garrison in the far south to monitor Iranian proxies transporting weapons across the border.
The latest spike in attacks began ten days after a Hamas raid on Israel on October 7, in which at least 1,200 people were killed. Israel’s violent military response has killed thousands of civilians trapped in Gaza, and fueled threats of retaliation from a range of Iranian-backed groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Yemen-based Houthis, and militants in Iraq and Syria. These threats escalated after an explosion occurred on October 17 in a Gaza hospital, killing hundreds of civilians. Hamas blamed Israel for the explosion, but Israel denied this, and Israeli and American officials blamed the explosion on a missile error by the Islamic Jihad movement.
The bulk of the attacks on bases and facilities were by suicide drones or missiles in one direction, and in most cases there were no casualties and only minor damage. There were a large number of injuries, especially brain injuries, in the initial attacks that occurred between 17 and 21 October on Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq and Al-Tanf. An American contractor suffered a cardiac arrest and died while seeking shelter from a possible drone attack.
Who are these groups?
With a power vacuum and years of civil conflict following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, militias have grown and multiplied in Iraq, some of them supported by Iran. A decade later, when the extremist Islamic State group invaded Iraq, a number of Iranian-backed militias came together under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces and fought the Islamic State.
The groups included Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades, and Kataib Hezbollah, or Kataib Hezbollah—a separate group from Lebanese Hezbollah. A number of Iraqi militias also operate in Syria, where Iran supports the government of Bashar al-Assad against opposition groups in the uprising that turned into a civil war that began in 2011.
After the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, a group of Iranian-backed factions branded themselves as the New Islamic Resistance in Iraq, and began the latest wave of attacks on bases housing US forces in Iraq and Syria.
The attacks put Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani in a difficult position. While he came to power with the support of Iranian-backed groups, he also wants continued good relations with the United States, and has supported the continued presence of US forces in his country.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in a meeting with Al-Sudani this month, warned of consequences if Iranian-backed militias continued to attack US facilities in Iraq and Syria. Al-Sudani then traveled to Tehran and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a meeting that American officials considered a positive development.
An official in an Iranian-backed militia said that Al-Sudani exerted “great pressure” on the militias not to carry out attacks during Blinken’s visit. He added that Al-Sudani, in return, promised to push the Americans not to respond forcefully to the militias that carried out the strikes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
Proportionate or insufficient?
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the Biden administration has moved warships, fighter jets, air defense systems and more troops to the Middle East in a campaign to dissuade militant groups from expanding the conflict.
But the US military response to the attacks on its forces was minimal. On October 27, the United States The fighter jets hit two weapons and ammunition Storage sites in eastern Syria near Albukamal used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iranian-backed groups. On November 8, Fighter planes dropped bombs At a weapons storage facility belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard near Maysloun in Deir ez-Zor. On November 12, US air strikes targeted a training facility And a safe house in the Bulbul district of Al-Mayadeen. US officials said individuals associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were there and were likely struck, but did not provide details.
There are concerns within the administration that more substantive retaliation could escalate violence and spark more deadly attacks. The Pentagon says the strikes damaged the group’s military stockpiles and rendered the sites unusable.
But critics say the US response pales in comparison to the 60 US attacks and casualties and, more importantly, has clearly failed to deter terrorist groups.
Iraqi government sensitivities
Although nearly half of the attacks were on US bases in Iraq, the United States only launched retaliatory airstrikes against sites in Syria.
The Pentagon defends the strike decisions by saying that the United States is striking Iranian Revolutionary Guard sites, which has a more direct impact on Tehran. Officials say the goal is to pressure Iran to tell the militias to stop attacks. They also say the sites were chosen because they are weapons depots and logistics hubs used by Iran-linked militias, and are being taken out to undermine the insurgents’ offensive capabilities.
However, one of the main reasons the United States is focusing on Syria is that the United States does not want to risk alienating the Iraqi government by launching strikes within its borders, which could result in Iraqis being killed or wounded.
In early January 2020, the United States launched an airstrike in Baghdad, killing General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. The strike strained relations with the Iraqi government and led to demands for the withdrawal of all American forces from the country.
The United States considers its presence in Iraq crucial in the war against ISIS, its ability to support forces in Syria, and its continued influence in the region. Military leaders have worked to restore good relations with Baghdad, including providing continued support to Iraqi forces.
Associated Press writer Qasim Abdul Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.