Pro-Iranian militias are “playing with fire” attacking American interests in Iraq and the recent escalation of tit-for-tat strikes could spiral out of control, analysts warn.
Two dozen rockets were fired at Ain Al-Assad’s base in West Anbar government, which welcomed Iraqi and American forces Tuesday in an iron assault that injured two members of the service.
A missile launcher used in the attack exploded near the base and damaged several buildings, including a mosque.
Hamza Mishaan was one of a number of civilians injured by the operation. He questioned why civilians were now caught in the fighting.
“I was looking out the window when the explosion detonated and the shrapnel hit me in the head. Why is this happening in our area? We are not part of this conflict, ”Mishaan told Al Jazeera.
General Tahsin al-Khafaji of the Joint Operation Command of Iraq acknowledged that the attacks have become more diverse.
“The terrorists used various ways to reach the base. This time the missiles were hidden under sacks of flour. We are now collecting evidence to identify the perpetrators,” he said.
“The necessary permissions”
The used truck was reduced to twisted metal and was parked next to the blasted mosque after the latest attack by pro-Iranian forces against U.S. interests in Iraq.
“The whole neighborhood was damaged, the houses burned, the windows broken,” said resident Hamza Abdulrazzaq, his head wrapped in a bandage. “The government should protect us. Why do we always have to pay the price? “
There have been earlier attacks on the base in Iraq’s desert province, Anbar, which welcomes U.S.-led coalition troops against the armed group ISIL (ISIS). But this operation was larger than the previous ones.
Iraqi General Hamad Namess said a total of 24 bombs were fired Tuesday from a truck carrying flour.
“The vehicle had all the necessary permits to cross the checkpoints,” reporters said Thursday, speaking at the site of the attacks.
Fourteen of the projects hit their target, causing minor injuries to two personnel on the base.
“Playing with fire”
The Pentagon said Thursday it was deeply concerned about a series of attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in recent days.
“They use deadly weapons.” I don’t know how to say anything other than a serious threat, ”Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran have vowed revenge following U.S. airstrikes on the Iraqi-Syrian border that killed four of their members last month.
Iran has refused to support attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and has condemned U.S. strikes on groups backed by Iran.
Iraq, a long arena for a bitter rivalry between the United States and Iran, despite its common enmity toward ISIL, has seen a growing number of rocket and drone attacks on U.S. targets in the last months.
Recent days have seen repeated strikes over US interests in the west, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in the north, and the US embassy in Baghdad.
Some have been vindicated by unknown groups before demanding the departure of the “American occupier,” or promising to avenge the deaths of comrades killed in American bombings.
But observers accuse him of existing pro-Iranian factions, operating under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi a paramilitary alliance formed to fight ISIL.
Hashd commanders, who are integrated into state forces and have become a major political player, often praise the attacks – without ever claiming responsibility.
Hashd promised revenge for the death of his forces in US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts warn even if neither side wants the conflict to intensify, the attacks will turn into dangerous tit-per-tat violence.
A senior military official has warned Iraqi armed groups to “play with fire”.
“We can expect the cycle to continue,” said Marsin Alshamary, an Iraqi specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.
Pro-Iranian forces have carried out dozens of attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq since the beginning of the year, mostly as demonstrations of force.
Hamdi Malik, an Iraqi researcher at the Washington Institute, said recent attacks by groups aligned with Iran in Iraq and eastern Syria were a way to bolster support.
Pro-Iranian groups suffered a severe blow in January last year with the killing of the venerable Iranian commander from the United States. Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
“Not to act when more of his people are killed, [pro-Iran groups] they risk losing their credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of their own bases, ”Malik said.
They are also cautious about “losing respect in the eyes of other components of the resistance axis” in other countries in the region, ”he said, referring to pro-Iranian forces in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
On the other hand, Washington “is trying to curb the influence and authority of these militias,” Alshamary said.
Alshamary said the Iraqi state has repeatedly condemned rocket and drone attacks, but has not been able to prosecute any perpetrators.
Such incidents have escalated in Iraq and Syria even as the United States and Iran conduct delicate negotiations to revive a 2015 agreement on Tehran’s nuclear activities, thwarted by the Trump administration in 2018.