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

Friday's spate of attacks prompted clear statements from the Pentagon and State Department, specifically attributing them to Iranian-backed militias, with the Pentagon even naming the two militias most responsible.
A formation of U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq, Sept. 23, 2014.  (Photo:  Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel, US Air Force)
A formation of U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq, Sept. 23, 2014. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel, US Air Force)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) On Friday, pro-Iranian militias launched an unprecedented series of attacks on sites in Iraq, Syria, and the Kurdistan Region, striking in more than six places.

In Baghdad, the U.S. embassy was struck by mortars, while the headquarters of the Iraqi National Security Service suffered a missile attack.

The Kurdistan Region was hit twice—one strike fell on a residential building, while a later attack involved five drones that targeted the Erbil International Airport, which, in addition to serving civilian airliners, also hosts troops from the anti-ISIS Coalition.

In Iraq’s western Anbar Province, Ain Al-Assad airbase, where Coalition troops are deployed, was struck twice, while bases hosting U.S. troops in Syria were struck three times, as Reuters reported.

Failure of Deterrence

The unprecedented barrage of attacks follow weeks in which the Biden administration would not attribute such assaults to militias backed by Iran. It was prepared to say—and did say—that Iran was behind the attacks of Yemen’s Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea, but it would not say the same about the militias in Iraq and Syria.

Rather, speaking just a day before, on Thursday, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh described those carrying out the attacks in Iraq and Syria as “hostile militant groups.”

Read More: U.S. Sec Def Speaks with Saudi Counterpart, amid Attacks by Iran-backed Militias

That left unclear who was actually carrying out the attacks and what other parties might be supporting them.

Moreover, Singh dismissed those attacks as insignificant, describing them as “largely not successful with minor damage to infrastructure.”

It was an astonishing performance from a Pentagon Spokesperson—as if the U.S. Defense Department no longer understood the use of force, whether by it, itself, or by others against it.

New Approach: Clear Attribution

That such an approach–”see no evil”–could be an invitation to further attacks is fairly obvious, and it may well be that it was already under debate within the Biden administration, when Friday’s attacks occurred.

Whatever the case, those attacks prompted clear statements from both the Pentagon and State Department, specifically attributing the assaults to Iranian-backed militias. Indeed, the Pentagon went so far as to actually name the militias.

Thus, Friday’s statements marked a departure from past policy. What remains to be seen is what, if any, effect it will have on Tehran and its proxies. Above all, if they continue to attack the U.S. and its partners in Iraq, Syria, and the Kurdistan Region, will the Biden administration be prepared to respond decisively?

U.S. Sec. Def. Speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister after Attack on U.S. Embassy

Friday’s string of assaults began with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Seven mortars were launched against the facility, although they caused only minor damage. Nonetheless, citing a U.S. military official, Reuters called it “the largest attack of its kind in recent memory.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani responded with a statement denouncing the attack and directing the Iraqi security services “to pursue the perpetrators,” as he stressed that “targeting diplomatic missions is something that cannot be justified and cannot be accepted, under any circumstances and regardless of the allegations and illusions behind these shameful acts.”

Subsequently, Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, spoke with Sudani. Austin welcomed his statement, while he “underscored that the United States reserves the right to act in self-defense against those launching any attack against U.S. personnel,” according to a readout of their discussion provided by Pentagon Press Secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder.

Austin affirmed, the readout continued, “that the Iranian-backed militant groups Kata’ib Hizbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, both designated terrorist organizations, are responsible for most of the attacks against Coalition personnel, and that the United States reserves the right to respond decisively against those groups.”

That marked the first time a U.S. official named the groups behind the attacks; linked them to Iran; and threatened a decisive response.

State Department

The State Department also issued a statement denouncing the militia attacks and—for the first time—linking them to Iran.

The statement, issued by Matthew Miller, the Department Spokesperson, was, notably, titled “Iran Aligned Militias in Iraq.”

“The United States strongly condemns last night’s rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and today’s attacks against facilities hosting U.S. personnel,” Miller’s statement began.

“The many Iran-aligned militias that operate freely in Iraq threaten the security and stability of Iraq, our personnel, and our partners in the region,” it continued.

Miller praised Sudani for denouncing the attacks as “acts of ‘terrorism,’” and called on Baghdad to “investigate and arrest the perpetrators.” 

The question, however, is whether the Iraqi government is in a position to do so. The militias are powerful, reflecting Tehran’s strong influence in Baghdad, as Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24.

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

At some point on Friday, the Baghdad headquarters of the Iraqi National Security Service was attacked, damaging vehicles and buildings, according to a Spokesperson, Ersed Hakim.

The attack could well have been the militias’ response to Sudani’s statement vowing to arrest and bring to justice those who had carried out the assault on the U.S. embassy. 

Finally, as mentioned above, there were also attacks on Friday on Ain Al-Assad airbase and on military bases in northeast Syria that host Coalition troops. 

Two targets in Erbil were hit as well. The first attack, in the early evening, around 6:00 PM, struck a residential building. 

Read More: Suicide drone crashes into Erbil residential building, no casualties

Later on Friday, five explosive drones were launched at the Erbil International Airport. However, it seems they failed to hit their targets, as they either crashed or were shot down.

What will follow Friday’s unprecedented spate of militia attacks is unclear. Washington has upped the level of its warnings to Iran and the militias it supports, but whether that will serve as an effective deterrent against future attacks remains to be seen.