Pro-Iran militias using ‘more sophisticated weapons’ against US forces in Iraq

“At least three times in the past two months,” the militias have fired “small, explosive-laden drones that divebomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases,” The New York Times reported Friday.
Aerial photo shows Ain al-Assad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq. (Photo: Archive)
Aerial photo shows Ain al-Assad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq. (Photo: Archive)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – There is a new and “rapidly evolving threat” to US forces in Iraq posed by Iranian proxies there, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Three Attacks at US sites: Two in the Kurdistan Region, One in Anbar

Pro-Iranian militias now have “more sophisticated weaponry, including armed drones,” the paper said. “At least three times in the past two months,” the militias have fired “small, explosive-laden drones that divebomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases.”

The first such attack was on Erbil International Airport, in the Kurdistan Region, on April 14. The assault targeted a CIA hangar, inside the airport complex.

Read More: Erbil International Airport targeted in drone attack

The Times’ story followed a similar report in The Washington Post last week, which explained that the militia strike on Erbil Airport “prompted a long night of deliberations” about how to respond. Some US officials argued for a military response, but it was “ultimately decided against military action.”

The drone attack on the Erbil Airport was followed on May 8, by a similar assault on Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq’s western Al-Anbar province.

Read More: Iraq: New 'suicide drone' attack targets Ain Al-Asad airbase

Those two bases—Erbil and Ain al-Assad—host the vast majority of US forces in Iraq. Over the course of 2020, the US-led Coalition against ISIS withdrew from its smaller bases, concentrating in those two facilities, as the mission of the Coalition shifted from combat to train and assist.

Read More: Coalition to continue Iraq operations, as Patriot missiles arrive, and base consolidation proceeds

Again, following the attack on Ain al-Assad, there was no US response, and on May 11, a third drone targeted a second facility in the Kurdistan Region: Harir airfield, north of Erbil, which hosts JSOC—the US Joint Special Operations Command.

That detail, which appeared in the New York Times, was the first public revelation of a third strike, as well as of the location of the highly secretive and sensitive JSOC.

Since the enemy clearly knows that information, it seems, that it is no longer sensitive and so it was revealed to the Times.

Evidence Against Iran

Drone wreckage was recovered at all three sites, and “preliminary analyses indicated [the drones] were made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran,” the Times reported. The drones are larger than those which are available commercially, and they can carry 10 to 60 pounds of explosives.

The major Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, such as Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, both of which the US has designated as terrorist organizations, have not claimed the assaults.

Rather, as the Times stated, new groups, with new names, are used to conceal the role of the major militias, and, in fact, the “smaller, specialized groups” are being trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at bases in Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq.

Two issues are of special concern to US commanders. One is that they have no defense against the bomb-laden drones. The US has weapons systems to counter missiles and rockets, but the drones fly too low for such systems to be effective against them.

The second issue is that two of the three targets are highly secretive organizations, suggesting that Iran has at least one source with access to sensitive information about US basing and operations.

Did US Passivity toward Iran-backed Militia Attacks in Iraq spill over into the Israeli-Palestinian Theater?

The recent, repeated assaults on US forces in Iraq by the pro-Iranian militias stand in contrast to the ceasefire that the militias announced last October, following strong threats made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Read More: US warns Iraq on Iranian-backed militias

The militias’ cease-fire—as well as the resumption of attacks with the new administration—are detailed in the latest report of the Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General on US efforts in Iraq and Syria.

The key factor for the Biden administration on whether to respond to such attacks by Iran-backed militias is whether there are US casualties, the Post reported. So far, there have been none.

However, such passivity may be contributing to other, quite serious problems, which Americans have not really considered for a variety of reasons. They include a failure to see the Middle East from Iran’s perspective; a focus on groups, rather than the states that support them; and conceptual boxes that do not match the real world.

For Iran, the entire region is, arguably, one theater, in which it uses the same techniques and tactics. For the US, there is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; Iraq, Syria, and ISIS; Yemen and the Houthis, etc. Events in one area are regularly seen as independent and distinct.

Following the initial flurry of drone strikes on US targets in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, more than three weeks have passed since the last one.

Why? The question is scarcely asked, let alone is a meaningful attempt made to answer it.

Iran arms proxies throughout a substantial stretch of the Middle East. They include the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas.

“Iran has played a key role in helping” Hamas produce “the deadly weapons arsenal that has allowed it to hit targets inside Israel, according to Western intelligence officials,” Con Coughlin, Defense Editor for the British paper, The Daily Telegraph, wrote in mid-May, just after the 11-day war between Hamas and Israel had begun.

“Senior Hamas commanders are believed to have made regular visits to Iran, where they have undergone training in the production and operation of sophisticated weapons systems,” Coughlin stated.

Read More: Republicans, Biden administration clash over Iran’s role in Hamas attacks on Israel

The drone strikes on US targets in Iraq stopped, or, perhaps, more accurately, were suspended, just after May 10, when Hamas began to fire rockets on Israeli cities. Eventually, Hamas would launch drones as well, revealing that a new weapon had entered that theater as well.

Would Iran have wanted the drone strikes in Iraq to cease, while Hamas was firing rockets and drones on Israeli cities? Perhaps, to avoid a broader recognition, including in Washington, of the full extent of its aggressive activities—which the Biden administration tolerates, because it hopes that if it refrains from criticizing Iran, the 2015 nuclear deal can be restored?

Or might the militias themselves, for some reason, have wanted to avoid association with Hamas?

That, of course, is just speculation, but the suspension of one set of attacks by one group of Iranian-backed militias and the start of a massive barrage of such attacks by other Iranian-backed militias is suggestive.

Mick Mulroy, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East and co-founder of the Lobo Institute, told Kurdistan 24 that it was a reasonable inference.

“I think it’s plausible that this was a calculated decision,” Mulroy said. And “I don’t think it’s going to stop.”

“Iran is constantly trying to use proxies and anything that can reduce the direct connection to themselves,” while advancing their objectives, he added. “Iran wants to push the United States out of Iraq,” but “they don’t want necessarily to instigate something that’s too large-scale, because you could have a backlash.”

Mulroy stressed the importance of the US remaining in Iraq. “We need to provide that stability to ensure that ISIS doesn’t return,” he said, even as “we are also the biggest counterpoint to Iran.”