U.S. Preempts Militia Attack, as Criticism of Biden’s Iran Policy Mounts

Thus, it would seem, the planned attack in Kirkuk, which prompted the U.S. retaliatory strike, was intended as one of a series.
An MQ-9 Reaper drone equipped with Hellfire missiles, Aug. 30, 2023. (Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Victoria Nuzzi)
An MQ-9 Reaper drone equipped with Hellfire missiles, Aug. 30, 2023. (Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Victoria Nuzzi)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) - The U.S. announced on Monday that it had pre-empted preparations on Sunday for an attack by militia forces in Iraq that would have targeted U.S. forces there.

Also on Sunday, the Houthis in Yemen assaulted three ships in the Red Sea, prompting the Biden administration to announce it was seeking to form a coalition to counter such attacks.

These measures come against a background of increasing criticism in Washington of what is perceived to be a weak policy toward Iran. The strongest such criticism came in a bill passed last week by the House of Representatives. It would ban exemptions to the Iranian sanctions regime imposed by the Trump administration, after it withdrew from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was concluded under the Obama administration. 

Most notable among the provisions of the House bill is a renewed freeze on $6 billion in Iranian funds, originally impounded and held in South Korea. Last August, the Biden administration authorized the release of those funds in the context of a prisoner swap with Iran. 

Read More: House passes bill blocking $6 billion for Iran from prisoner swap

Several of Biden’s top advisers served in the Obama administration, and as they took office, one of their top objectives in the Middle East was to restore the JCPOA. Hence, they adopted a conciliatory stance toward Iran.

But the new administration reluctantly came to conclude that Iran was not really interested in renewing the accord. When an agreement appeared near, Iran repeatedly raised new conditions, eventually leading to an abandonment of that diplomacy.

Read More: US: Iran blocking renewal of JCPOA by introducing new demands

Although the Biden administration is no longer actively pursuing the JCPOA’s renewal, there may be a lingering dimension to the problem, as it is not clear that it recognizes the full extent of the national security challenge that Tehran poses.

Strikes by Pro-Iran Militia on U.S. Forces in Iraq, Syria

“On December 3, near Kirkuk, Iraq, forces assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) engaged five militants preparing to launch a one-way attack drone,” CENTCOM announced in a statement released on Monday.

The statement was entitled, “U.S. Central Command engages militants in self-defense,” as it explained that the Coalition’s response involved “an armed U.S. unmanned aerial system killing all five militants and destroying the drone.”

“Iraqi Security Forces were notified of the strike and responded to the location,” CENTCOM continued, “where they confirmed the death of the militants and the destruction of the drone.”

On Nov. 28, Pentagon Deputy Spokesperson Sabrina Singh told journalists that there had been 74 attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq between then and Oct. 17.

On Nov. 22, the U.S. launched a retaliatory strike on two sites in Iraq belonging to Kata’ib Hizbollah, a pro-Iranian militia, which the U.S. had designated a terrorist group already in 2009. 

Those strikes marked an escalation in the administration’s response to attacks on U.S. forces. The Pentagon had urged a more muscular response, as it judged earlier U.S. actions too weak to deter future attacks.

The Nov. 22 counter-strikes marked the first time that the Biden administration responded to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq with a counter-attack on targets in Iraq. Until then it had responded to all attacks on U.S. forces—even attacks in Iraq—with strikes in Syria, as it feared that military action in Iraq might cause Baghdad to withdraw its permission for U.S. forces to remain in the country.

That concern proved unfounded, however. Rather, six days of quiet followed. Yet on Nov. 29, militia attacks resumed with an assault in Syria. 

Read More: Multi-rocket attack targets US base in Shaddadi

Another such attack occurred on Dec. 3 in Syria, targeting the U.S. base at the Al-Omar oil field. And the first such attack occurred in Iraq, targeting the Harir Air Base in the Kurdistan Region, on the same date.

Thus, it would seem, the planned attack in Kirkuk, which prompted the U.S. retaliatory strike, was intended as one of a series.

Biden-Sudani Exchange

On Dec. 1, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone with Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani. Blinken appears to have a cordial relationship with Sudani. Blinken has spoken several times with the Iraqi premier since he assumed office in Oct. 2022, and Blinken met with Sudani, when he visited Baghdad last month.

Their discussion confirmed that the Nov. 22 U.S. retaliatory strike against the two Kata’ib Hizbollah sites did not harm U.S. ties with Baghdad.

However, it did suggest that, perhaps, the U.S. lacks a good understanding of the political scene in Baghdad and the extent to which Tehran has established a position of strong influence.

According to the U.S. read-out of their discussion, Blinken “called on the Iraqi government to protect all installations hosting U.S. personnel.” 

Read More: US Secretary of State Speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister

However, it is questionable if Sudani has the power to do that, as Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24. 

“While Baghdad should be doing much more to ensure protection of U.S. forces which are in Iraq legally under an updated SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement], the big question is, can it?,” Ben Taleblu asked.

“The Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia network” operates as “the long arm of the regime’s power,” he continued, and “they are deepening their roots” in Iraq and will block “justice and accountability at all costs.”

Houthi Strikes on Red Sea Shipping

On Sunday, CENTCOM issued another statement involving assaults by Iranian-backed proxies. This time, it was the Houthis in Yemen.

“Today, there were four attacks against three separate commercial vessels operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea,” CENTCOM’s statement said, adding, “These three vessels are connected to 14 separate nations.”

A U.S. destroyer responded to the distress calls from the ships, as several were damaged in the attacks.

Notably, CENTCOM identified Tehran as being responsible. Its statement affirmed, “We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.”

As Washington’s highly-regarded Institute for the Study of War remarked later on Sunday, referring to both the strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, “Iran and its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling US forces from the Middle East.”

The first response of the Biden administration to the Houthi attacks resembled its initial response to the attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. Its response was almost entirely defensive: form a broad alliance to provide armed escorts for commercial shipping. 

As National Security Council Advisor Jake Sullivan told journalists on Monday, “We are in talks with other countries about a maritime task force of sorts involving the ships from partner nations alongside the United States in ensuring safe passage.”

Sullivan also reiterated CENTCOM’s emphasis on Tehran’s role, saying the attacks were “fully enabled by Iran.”

“They’re the ones with their fingers on the trigger,” Sullivan affirmed. “That gun, the weapons here, are being supplied by Iran, and Iran we believe is the ultimate party responsible for this.”