Monday, December 30, 2019

US Retaliates Against Kataib Hezbollah Raising Question Of What Comes Next?

US struck 5 Kataib Hezbollah camps in Iraq and Syria (Reuters)

 
On December 29, the U.S. fired missiles at three Kataib Hezbollah bases in Iraq and two in Syria. Kataib Hezbollah claimed that 25 of its fighters including a brigade commander and 51 others were wounded in Anbar. Reportedly, three Iranians lost their lives as well. This was the first time that the Trump administration responded to Iranian provocation in Iraq.

This was retaliation for the December 27 attack upon the K1 military base just outside of Kirkuk city that killed two Iraqi police, a U.S. contractor, and wounded two Iraqi and four U.S. soldiers. The rocket launcher mounted on the back of a truck, and unused missiles were found outside the base. The markings on them matched Iranian missiles Israel intercepted in 2009 heading for Hezbollah. Pro-Iran groups such as Kataib Hezbollah have been escalating their attacks upon U.S. targets in Iraq over the last two months plus, but this was the first time that there were American casualties. As the number of rocket and mortar incidents increased so did the chance that Americans would be hit.

After rockets were fired at the Baghdad International Airport that houses U.S. troops on December 11 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Iraqi government to stop parties from carrying out such actions, and threatened a “decisive” response if another incident occurred thus leading to the strikes on Kataib Hezbollah. The secretary just visited Iraq on December 28, probably to discuss the strike. Washington decided it could take no more goading from Iran and its allies in Iraq. It’s hoping that this missile attack will deter future acts by pro-Iran groups, but that’s unlikely.

Date
Province
Location
Feb 2
Anbar
Rockets discovered aimed at Ain Al-Assad Base
May 19
Baghdad
Rockets Green Zone
Jun 14
Salahaddin
Mortars Balad Air Base
Jun 16
Baghdad
Rockets Baghdad Military Airport
Jun 17
Baghdad
Rockets Camp Taji
Jun 18
Ninewa
Rockets Ninewa Regional Command Base
Jun 18
Basra
Rockets Burjesia Intl Oil Company Camp
Oct 28
Baghdad
Mortars Camp Taji
Oct 30
Baghdad
Mortars Green Zone
Nov 2
Ninewa
Rockets Makhmour Base
Nov 8
Ninewa
Rockets Qayara Base
Nov 17
Baghdad
Rockets Green Zone
Nov 22
Baghdad
Rockets aimed at Green Zone landed in Tigris River
Nov 29
Baghdad
Rockets Green Zone
Dec 3
Anbar
Rockets Ain Al-Assad Base
Dec 5
Salahaddin
Mortar Balad Air Base
Dec 6
Baghdad
3 Rockets found aimed at Green Zone
Dec 8
Baghdad
Rockets Baghdad Military Airport
6 Counter Terror Service wounded
Dec 11
Baghdad
Rockets Baghdad International Airport
Dec 27
Kirkuk
Rockets K1 Military Base
2 Iraqi police and 1 US contractor killed
2 Iraqi soldiers and 4 US soldiers wounded

Kataib Hezbollah and likely other Hashd groups backed by Tehran have been carrying out a series of operations against U.S. targets in Iraq since the start of the year. There have been a total of 19 incidents in 2019 mostly coming in two large waves. The first started on June 14 when mortars hit the Balad Air Base in Salahaddin followed by four other attacks that month in Baghdad, Ninewa and Basra. The second wave started on October 28 when Camp Taji in northern Baghdad province was hit with mortars, followed by twelve more such incidents including rockets fired on the Baghdad Military Airport on December 8 that wounded 6 members of the Iraqi Counter Terror Service, and then culminating with the assault on the K1 base on December 27. The recent surge of attacks was probably a message from Iran and Hashd groups to Washington to stay out of the political unrest in Iraq started by the protests and the resignation of the government. Tehran and its Iraqi allies have claimed the demonstrations are an American plot.  

Kataib Hezbollah was created by Iran as a proxy force to carry out its foreign policy goals in the Middle East. In 2007, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force founded Kataib Hezbollah as an elite force. It received training and equipment from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Starting in March 2007 it began attacking U.S. forces and in 2009 was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as a result. In 2012, it was deployed to Syria to support the Assad regime under command of Quds Force head General Qasim Soleimani. Two years later it was used by the Maliki government to fight the insurgency and became part of the Hashd al-Shaabi. In 2018 and 2019 it moved against protesters and killed, wounded and kidnapped dozens of demonstrators. In May 2019, it launched  drone strike against a Saudi oil pumping station. The attack upon the K1 base therefore was exactly what Kataib Hezbollah was founded for. It is an active proxy of Iran and has consistently carried out its orders throughout the region.

The question now is what will happen next? Will Kataib Hezbollah and the other parties aligned with Iran carry out more attacks on U.S. targets? Abu Muhandis who is the deputy head of the Hashd Commission and the leader of Kataib Hezbollah already threatened an immediate and harsh response to the Americans. That could lead to more retaliation by the Trump administration and a cycle of escalating violence. After such losses however those groups may be reluctant to immediately return to their operations. Iraqi political parties are also demanding that U.S. forces leave the country. This has been going on for months now and with Tehran-aligned parties dominating parliament that could eventually happen. With Prime Minister Adl Abdul Mahdi having resigned and no replacement named however, this would happen down the road. Ironically, President Trump might support this as he has been no fan of U.S. involvement in Middle East wars. Whatever happens this adds another layer of instability to Iraq heading into the new year.

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Pompeo warns Iran of ‘decisive response’ if US interests harmed in Iraq,” 12/14/19
- “US interests come under repeated fire in Iraq: officials,” 6/19/19

Al Alam, “The Engineer: The response will be harsh for the American forces,” 12/29/19

Al Arabiya, “3 Iranian officials were killed in the American strikes on the Iraqi Hezbollah sites,” 12/29/19

Arraf, Jane, “U.S. Military Official Warns Of Dangerous Escalation In Iran-Backed Attacks In Iraq,” NPR, 12/12/19

Clarion Project, "Deadly Attack on American Base in Iraq Foiled," 2/3/19

Department of Defense, “Statement From Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Jonathan Hoffman,” 12/29/19

Dri, Karwan Faidhi, "17 rockets fired at Iraqi base housing US forces: Iraq military," Rudaw, 11/8/19
- "Several missiles hit key military base in Kirkuk province: security source," Rudaw, 12/27/19

Al Hurra, "Free Sources: 5 wounded, by a missile attack on a military airport in Baghdad (video)," 12/8/19
- “Iran and Hezbollah’s relationship with the missiles that targeted K1 in Iraq … The photos reveal the truth,” 12/29/19

Lamothe, Dan and Salim, Mustafa, “U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria target Iranian-backed militia, Pentagon says, Washington Post, 12/29/19

Al Maalomah, "Rocket shell landed on US Makhmour base," 11/2/19

Al Mada, “Katyusha groups escalate the situation: 16 attacks targeting US bases in Iraq,” 12/28/19

Al Masalah, “Anbar reveals the truth about the visit of the American Secretary of State to Ain Al-Assad base,” 12/28/19

NINA, "3 Katyusha Rockets Dismantled In Sabaa Bour Area Directed At Central Baghdad," 12/6/19
- "A Katyusha Rocket Land In The Vicinity Of The Green Zone, Causing No Casualties," 11/29/19
- "Security Sources Announces The Nature Of Targeting The Green Zone," 11/17/19
- "A Soldier Killed, Others Injured In 2 Mortar Shells Landed On A Security Post In The Green Zone," 10/30/19

Read, Russ, "Rocket fired at US embassy in Iraq the same model used by Iran," Washington Examiner, 5/19/19

Reuters, "Rocket hits site of foreign oil firms in Iraq's Basra, two hurt," 6/18/19
- "Rockets hit base hosting U.S. forces in western Iraq," 12/3/19

Shafaaq News, “Joint operations: killing and wounding 34 of the crowd, including an auxiliary brigade commander, with three US strikes,” 12/29/19
- "Security authorities announce a rocket landed in the Tigris River in central Baghdad,' 11/22/19
- "Three Katyusha rockets hit Taji camp," 6/17/19

Starr, Barbara, "US civilian contractor killed in rocket attack in Iraq," CNN, 12/27/19

Al Sumaria, "Security media announces the fall of three mortar shells on the base of Balad," 6/14/19
- "Three mortar shells land near Al-Taji Camp north of Baghdad," 10/28/19
- "Three mortar shells landed on the country air base," 12/5/19

Xinhua, "Rocket hits perimeter of Iraqi capital's capital," 12/12/19

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