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American forces in Iraq were hit by 3 attacks in 3 days. Will Biden strike back?
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE For the third day in a row, US bases in Iraq have come under fire from rocket attacks. No one has taken responsibility for the recent attacks, which so far have not proven fatal, but the US has routinely accused Iran of Aided Militias attacking American interests in Iraq. The question now is – as the attacks escalate – what will President Biden do about it? The Biden administration faces a Herculean task in dealing with these incidents, in part because it was left with a blueprint of the last administration seeking retaliation every time American personnel were killed. When an American contractor was killed in a missile attack on a K-1 base in 2019, which the US accused of Kataib Hezbollah, US forces retaliated against Iran. supported militants in December and sparked a cycle of violent clashes. Within a few days, the US embassy was hit by protests, the American Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was forcibly killed, and in January 2020 Iran fired ballistic missiles at the Al-Asad base, where US troops are stationed The Biden administration wants to avoid that. And while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin firmly believed the US would defend its forces in Iraq, in weeks like this, its troops will be cornered when missile strikes hit three US positions. Rockets were fired at the Ayn al Asad air base in western Iraq on Tuesday. On Monday there was an attack on the Balad Air Force Base, north of Baghdad, which houses US contractors, and on Sunday another attack on the US base at Baghdad Airport I don’t want to rush for a violent response, but I do don’t look like it’s doing nothing. For this reason, State Department and Pentagon officials often elude questions about which particular groups are responsible for a particular attack and how they would like to respond. If you don’t name the perpetrator, you don’t have to react. In February, the US launched air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria in response to an earlier attack on American forces. This was an example of the delicate balancing act the US is so desperately trying to perfect: react without escalating. By attacking Iranian-backed forces in Syria, the US did not violate Iraqi sovereignty, which is a sensitive issue in Iraq and has led to requests for the US to leave. American forces are in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad to help combat IS. When the Trump administration suggested in December 2018 that the US could pull out of Syria and use Iraq to “watch” Iran, many Iraqi politicians were stunned by the proposal. During the war against ISIS, there was a troubled truce between the US and Iran. When the Iran deal was in the works in 2015, US-led coalition forces came to Iraq to train, equip, advise and support the Iraqis to push back IS. But by 2017, when Trump was in office and ISIS was largely defeated in Iraq, tensions between the US and pro-Iranian politicians in Iraq increased. The Badr organization, whose leader Hadi al-Amiri served alongside the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, called for the United States to leave. Qais Khazali, a militia leader who was once arrested by the US at Camp Cropper, stepped up threats against the USBy in May 2019. Missile attacks – often involving 107mm missiles related to Iran – were directed against the US embassy in Baghdad, a US facility in Baghdad International Airport and US forces in Camp Taji and other bases. By July 2020, attacks on weekly incidents increased and the US sent air defenses, including patriots, to Iraq to protect against ballistic missile threats from Iran. This could mean that pro-Iranian groups in Iraq are seeking some sort of maximum pressure campaign against the US, in the same way as the Trump administration’s maximum pressure on Iran. This puts the Biden government in a precarious position. Unlike Afghanistan – where the US is withdrawing – it wants to maintain its presence in Iraq, and today American troops have been withdrawn and consolidated in easy-to-defend locations, partly due to frequent attacks. Consolidation means fewer potential targets, and the armed forces left K-1, Q-West, Camp Taji, and a number of other posts in 2020. However, the recent attacks over the past three months show how vulnerable US forces are, regardless of the consolidation tactic they use. The message seems to be that Iran-backed forces will continue to strike wherever US forces are located, be it at the vast Asad base or in Erbil. There are several options available to the White House. It can hold Iran directly accountable, but that could lead to military escalation. It can also use the attacks as a lever to raise a new regional Iran deal that they must stop under the deal. Alternatively, it could demand that these groups be held accountable by the Iraqi authorities, but the track record of these investigations is grim. No militias have ever been charged for these attacks by the government, which is often reluctant to prosecute these groups because of their ties to powerful political parties that have threatened the Iraqi president and prime minister in the past. The last two options are to escalate US air strikes in Syria to punish Iran-affiliated groups or to do nothing at all. To do nothing means letting pro-Iranian groups determine the pace and escalation of the conflict. Further air strikes risk the appearance of action without sending a serious message to Iran. Small attacks will not cause Iran to reconsider its policy of harassing US forces in Iraq. The Trump administration tried to raise the bar through retaliation in response to casualties that resulted in dozens of militia attacks. Before Trump, other US governments preferred to stand on the side, do nothing, sideline the US and give pro-Iranian groups the upper hand. The White House faces two questions here. Are the attacks in Iraq a purely Iraqi problem with a local solution? Or is the goal to stop the attacks in Tehran, which requires a regional approach that addresses tensions from Yemen to Syria, from Lebanon to Israel? Both paths pose challenges for the administration that three previous administrations were unable to solve. Read more at The Daily Beast. Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.