ATTACK ON IRAQI BASE RE-ESCALATES TENSIONS AMID GLOBAL UNCERTAINTY

 

On 11 March, roughly 18 Katyusha rockets struck the al-Taji military base, roughly 35 km north of Baghdad, which hosts US and UK forces. The strikes killed two US personnel, a UK soldier and have injured at least a dozen more.

 

SIGNIFICANCE

·    At the time of writing, no individual group has claimed responsibility for the rocket strikes. However, based on information regarding the nature of the attack and similar previous incidents involving US military targets, it is likely to have been perpetrated by an Iranian-backed, anti-US militia, such as Kataib Hizballah. 

·    The attack constitutes the most significant incident in recent weeks in the ongoing confrontation between the US and Iran and their allies, after tensions spiked in January following the US killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Nevertheless, there have been at least 20 incidents targeting US military interests in Iraq since late 2019.

·    The escalation in hostilities in January has led to intensified calls for the expulsion of US and foreign forces from the country, with Iraq’s parliament also voting for their removal. However, ongoing political uncertainty surrounding government formation, which has significantly delayed decision-making processes, has likely aggravated anti-US sentiment amongst the more hardline Shia militias.

·    Shortly following the attack on al-Taji, apparent retaliatory airstrikes targeted the Syrian border town of Albukamal on Iraq’s western border, reportedly killing 18 Iraqi militia members. The crossing is known to be of great strategic importance for Iran and its proxies, and has been used to transfer weapons and supplies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Iraqi Shia militias captured the area from Islamic State in late 2017, and essentially control the border crossing point.

 

FORECAST

Given the relative frequency of attacks on US military targets in the country, yesterday’s strike on al-Taji base does not itself constitute a major escalation. Similarly, although the threshold of loss of life has previously been a red line for US President Donald Trump, he is currently unlikely to re-escalate tensions to the levels of January this year. The killing of one of Iran’s most important military figures, Qassem Soleimani, brought the US and Iran closer to conflict than either wanted (especially given upcoming US elections) and both sides chose to let tensions subside within two weeks of the incident. At this stage, in any further retaliation the US would most likely seek to strike militia targets in Iraq and Syria, which, although linked with Iran, are not explicitly Iranian personnel, and would not therefore necessitate a response from Tehran.

It appears as though Iran has largely returned to its posture of plausible deniability, and is likely content to put its confrontation with the US to one side while it attempts to contain the fallout from the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus in Iran. Notably, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, announced that Iran’s Central Bank has sought access to an IMF Rapid Financial Instrument to support the containment of the coronavirus. The global impact of the pandemic will likely prevent either side from taking a more hardline response to the attack in the coming days and weeks, given their preoccupation with the virus. However, US and foreign military interests in the country will remain vulnerable to sporadic rocket attacks by semi-autonomous militia groups.