Rockets hit Iraqi base with US troops less than a week after Biden officials said Syria strikes would ‘de-escalate’ tensions in the region

Al Asad
US soldiers inspect the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq, on January 13, 2020. John Davison/Reuters
  • An Iraqi base hosting US troops was targeted with 10 rockets on Wednesday.
  • The attack came less than a week after Biden ordered strikes in Syria.
  • The Biden administration claimed those strikes would “de-escalate” tensions in the region.
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An Iraqi base hosting US troops was targeted with at least 10 rockets on Wednesday, a US-led coalition spokesperson said. The attack came less than a week after President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes in Syria that the Pentagon suggested would end attacks on US forces in the region. 

Wednesday’s incident is still being investigated, but there are no reports of casualties among US troops and no one has claimed responsibility. An American contractor died of a heart attack at the base where the rockets hit while sheltering, the Pentagon said.

The attack resembles similar incidents in which US forces in Iraq have been targeted by Iran-backed Shiite militias such as Kataib Hezbollah.

The Biden administration has blamed these militias for recent attacks in Iraq, including a February 15 attack on a US-led coalition base in Irbil (in Kurdish-led northern Iraq) that killed a foreign contractor, wounded a US soldier, and wounded several US contractors. 

The Syria strikes, which targeted facilities used by Iranian-backed militias operating just across the Iraqi border, were a retaliatory action for the Irbil attack that the Pentagon said represented a “proportionate military response” that would help ease tensions.

The Pentagon said that the strikes killed one fighter in an Iranian-backed militia, while wounding two others. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said that at least 22 Iranian-backed militia members were killed in the strikes, which marked the first major military action of Biden’s presidency. 

“We have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement on the February 25 strikes. 

But the attack on Wednesday could suggest that Biden’s Syria strikes did anything but “de-escalate,” though it remains unclear who’s responsible. 

The latest attack came amid tensions with Iran

Iran Rouhani capitol
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Western Democracy ‘fragile.’ Reuters

Wednesday’s incident also occurred at Al-Asad air base – where US troops were targeted by Iran in early 2020 after then-President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani – the country’s top military leader.

And it came as Biden vies to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned in May 2018. The deal imposed restrictions that aimed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

After pulling from the deal, Trump reimposed sanctions and pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, aiming to cripple Iran’s economy and squeeze Iranian leaders into negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 pact. Trump’s strategy did not work out, and instead helped raise tensions between Iran and the US to historic heights – sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East. 

The 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated under the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. During his campaign, Biden made returning to the 2015 deal a top foreign policy priority. But reviving the deal has already proven to be a major challenge for Biden. 

Iran has maintained that it will not return to compliance with the agreement until the US scraps sanctions. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has stated there will be no sanctions relief until Iran shows that it is in compliance with the agreement. Biden has signaled that he is willing to hold diplomatic talks with Iran in concert with European allies, but much is still up in the air and the future of the nuclear pact remains uncertain. 

In this context, Iran could be motivated to target US troops in Iraq in order to ramp up pressure on Washington to ease sanctions. At the same time, such an approach could backfire and push the Biden administration away from diplomacy. 

Biden on Friday told reporters the Syria strikes were meant to send a message to Iran: “You can’t act with impunity, be careful.” Iran has denied any involvement in the Irbil attack, though experts have said it’s unlikely anyone other than Tehran was behind it.

Douglas Silliman, US ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, told NBC News last month, “I have no doubt who’s behind it. It is the Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias who are behind this.”

Moreover, a militia group with ties to Iran, Awliya al-Dam, claimed credit for the fatal Irbil incident.

Setting aside Iran’s possible involvement or the motivations behind the Syria strikes, Biden has faced bipartisan criticism for not seeking congressional approval prior to giving the order.