US attacks militias in Iraq, retaliating for earlier strikes, including at Erbil Airport

Although it was Christmas, “President Biden was immediately briefed on the attack this morning, and he ordered the Department of Defense to prepare response options against those responsible,” the NSC Spokesperson said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III visits Erbil Air Base in Iraq on March 7, 2023 (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III visits Erbil Air Base in Iraq on March 7, 2023 (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Late on Monday, Christmas day, the U.S. announced that it had retaliated for several attacks earlier that day carried out by pro-Iranian militias on U.S. forces, including at Erbil International Airport.

The attacks injured three U.S. troops, with the injuries occurring at Erbil Airport. One of the injured soldiers was left in critical condition.

The U.S. statements—from the White House, Pentagon, and CENTCOM—all identified the group most responsible for the attack: Kata’ib Hizbollah, and they linked the militia to Iran. 

Those statements represent a significant departure from the earlier, very cautious position of the Biden administration, in which it avoided ascribing responsibility for the assaults to any party in particular.

Background: U.S. has Adopted Tougher Posture

As recently as Dec. 7, U.S. officials still called the forces attacking U.S. troops “militant groups,” without further identifying the attackers.

However, that changed radically the next day, on Dec. 8, when the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was attacked with mortars and several bases hosting U.S. troops were attacked with rockets and drones. 

Read More: U.S. Cites Iran, as Militias Attack Numerous Sites in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and Syria

A senior aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave directions long ago, following the 9/11 attacks, to a Pentagon study group of which this reporter was a member.

This senior official made an important statement, as relevant now, as then, “Without attribution, there is no deterrence.” 

Thus, the flurry of attacks on Dec. 8 on U.S. forces and facilities in Iraq and Syria, finally prompted the Biden administration to identify those carrying out the attacks and publicly link them to Iran.

Almost certainly, there had been an internal debate about the administration’s timid approach and whether it was sending the wrong signal to Iran and the militias it supports.

Otherwise, such a quick response would have been unlikely. Within hours of those attacks, already on the afternoon of Dec. 8—U.S. officials began to name the militia most responsible for them—Kata’ib Hizbollah—and they linked it to Iran. 

But the Biden administration has yet to comprehend and absorb a key principle of deterrence, as Monday’s statement from the Pentagon, issued in the name of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, seemed to suggest.

Austin stressed that the U. S. had “conducted necessary and proportionate strikes on three facilities,” describing them as “precision strikes,” carried out in “response to a series of attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias, including an attack by Iran-affiliated Kata’ib Hizbollah and affiliated groups on Erbil Air Base earlier today.”

A “proportionate” response and “precision strikes” do not create deterrence! They allow the enemy to control the nature and pace of events, because he understands that you will respond in kind to what he does: tit-for tat.

The enemy attacks you, because he gains from it—perhaps in popularity at home, perhaps within the region. As long as the enemy is confident that your retaliation will be commensurate to his attacks, he may well conclude that your response constitutes an acceptable price, and he will continue his attacks. 

Indeed as John Bolton, Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, wrote last week in The Washington Post, “Deterrence is based not on rhetoric but on power and performance.” 

William Luti, Senior Director for Defense Policy and Strategy in George W. Bush’s National Security Council, wrote similarly in The Wall Street Journal on Monday.

Luti was referring to deterrence in the context of the attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis on international shipping. But the principle is the same: you don’t achieve deterrence by tit-for-tat.

Rather, as Luti wrote, “Bolstering deterrence requires the political will to impose a cost that far outweighs any gain the Houthis could hope to attain” through their attacks.

Finally, in a similar vein, Hoshyar Zebari, a long-time Kurdish political figure, Iraq’s first post-Saddam Foreign Minister and subsequently Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, criticized the weakness in Washington and Baghdad toward the attacks being carried out in the region by Iran’s proxy militias. 

Zebari was looking at the big picture: the series of attacks in Syria and Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, over the past two months, as well as the Houthi attacks on international shipping. His remarks were posted after the attack on Erbil Airport, but before the U.S. counterstrikes.

Thus, Zebari tweeted, “The muted response by US & Coalition against a constant barrage of rockets, UMAs against their bases & interests in Iraq, Syria, Red Sea by proxy militias can only increase their appetite for a further regional escalation.”

Describing this as a “policy of appeasement,” Zebari called for it to end in both Baghdad and Washington.

Monday’s Strikes on U.S. Forces and U.S. Counterstrikes

The White House statement on the militia attacks and U.S. counterstrikes strongly suggests that by the time of the attack on Erbil Air Base, the Biden administration had already decided that if there were further attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria, they would be met with a military response.

That statement was issued late on Monday by National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson. It began by citing the attack on Erbil Air Base., as she stated, “Early this morning in northern Iraq, U.S. military personnel were targeted by a one-way attack drone.”

That attack wounded three U.S. service members, one of them critically. “The Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hizbollah and affiliated groups, under an umbrella of Iranian-backed militants, claimed credit for the attack,” she continued.

President Joe Biden was already on Christmas holiday at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mountains outside Washington. Perhaps, the militias, along with their Iranian backers, thought the fact that it was a major U.S. holiday would inhibit any military response to their attacks. If so, they were wrong.

“President Biden was immediately briefed on the attack this morning, and he ordered the Department of Defense to prepare response options against those responsible,” Watson’s statement explained. 

“Those options were then presented to the President during a call this afternoon” with the Secretary of Defense “and members of the President’s national security team,” she continued. 

“During that call, the President directed strikes against three locations utilized by Kata’ib Hizbollah and affiliated groups, focused specifically on unmanned aerial drone activities,” she added.

Her statement concluded with a warning of possible, further U.S. military action, “The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing should these attacks continue.” 

The Commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Michael Kurilla, issued a similar statement, which provided a few more details.

Kurilla explained that the U.S. counterstrikes occurred just before dawn, at 4:45 AM, on Dec 26 (8:45 PM on Dec. 25, Eastern Standard Time.)

“Early assessments indicate that these U.S. airstrikes destroyed the targeted facilities and likely killed a number of Kata’ib Hizbollah militants,” Kurilla stated.

“There are no indications that any civilian lives are affected,” and “the U.S. military will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of these strikes,” he said.