MS Risk Blog

Attrition in Iraq: Explaining Rocket Attacks Against US-led Coalition Forces and US Assets

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On March 12th 2020 eighteen small rockets hit Iraq’s Camp Taji military base situated north of Baghdad hosting United States-led coalition troops fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The rocket attack killed one British and two American soldiers in addition to wounding 12 others. On March 14th a new wave of attacks targeting Camp Taji for the second time injured three coalition troops and at least two Iraqi soldiers. At least three rockets struck Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone near the American Embassy on the 17th of March and on the 26th of March two rockets again hit Baghdad’s Green Zone landing near Baghdad’s Operations Command which coordinates Iraq’s police and military forces. Rocket attacks against US-led coalition forces and US assets are not new.  On the 16th of February 2020 several rockets landed near the US Embassy striking an Iraqi base hosting coalition forces in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Prior to this, on the 13th of February 2020 a Katyusha rocket hit an Iraqi base hosting US troops in the remote province of Kirkuk. Two separate rocket attacks occurred in January 2020 and in December 27th 2019 a barrage of 30 rockets targeted the Iraqi base in Kirkuk killing a US contractor. No group has claimed responsibility for these attacks, but the US places the blame on militia groups within the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces such as Kataib Hezbollah and have in the past retaliated against Kataib Hezbollah in particular.

For instance, after the March 12th rocket attacks, the US retaliated on March 13th with airstrikes targeting five weapons stores used by the militia group including facilities housing arms which were reportedly used in previous attacks. Instead the strikes killed three regular Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and a civilian as well as damaging an unfinished civilian airport in Karbala. Moreover, after the December 27th attacks in Kirkuk, the US retaliated via airstrikes killing 25 Kataib Hezbollah fighters. There is reason to assume PMF militia groups are behind such attacks. For example, hours before the attack on the 16th of February, one PMF militia leader from Harakat al-Nujuba announced a countdown for ejecting US forces from Iraq. The PMF are mainly backed by Iran. Iran wields considerable influence in Iraq and is generally hostile to the US. On the 3rd of January 2020 the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and leader of Kataib Hezbollah and PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Furthermore, credible news sources such as Aljazeera and Foreign Policy are also claiming that Iraqi militia groups within the PMF are to blame for the rocket attacks. If elements of the PMF are involved in such attacks, then not claiming responsibility may be advantageous. Given the umbrella group’s ties to Iran it is possible that they are attempting to shield Iran from US political and military retaliation.

The Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, is a state sponsored umbrella group for approximately forty Iraqi militia groups, the majority of which are backed by Iran. Although predominantly Shia, the PMF includes some Sunni, Christian and Yazidi groups. The PMF has its roots in the war against the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. At the beginning of the conflict with ISIS in 2014, the powerful Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued  a fatwa, an Islamic ruling on a point of law given by a recognised authority, rallying 100,000 young men to join the organization. The then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki used these militia groups to combat ISIS and maintain his influence in predominantly Sunni areas. A good number of the PMF militia groups have their roots in older organizations such as the Badr Brigade led by Hadi al-Amiri who fought alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. Due to the war against ISIS,  The PMU’s presence in Iraq ballooned and their influence expanded owning their own warehouses for munitions and allegedly prisons. The turning point for the PMF came in 2017 when  it was officially integrated within Iraq’s security forces. Instead of merging the militia groups with regular forces the PMF was successful in solidifying its status as a distinct force. The militia groups preserved their former ties especially with Iran who backs the PMF. Thus, escalating tensions between the US and Iran meant that tensions would also rise between the US and PMF militia groups.

Although the group or groups responsible for the series of rocket attacks are not making themselves known, the strategy behind such attacks is quite clear; to force the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This resembles the strategy of attrition, one of five strategies used by groups engaged in terrorism in order to achieve political goals according to Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter in their 2006 paper The Strategies of Terrorism. For Kydd and Walter, terrorism is a rational choice for groups seeking to achieve a political goal through violence and can yield results. They point to various incidents in which groups engaged in terrorism achieved their political goals. For instance, the US withdrew from Lebanon after the 1983 suicide attack against the US marine barracks in Beirut, the US pulled its troops out of Saudi Arabia two years after the 9/11 attacks and the Philippines recalled its forces from Iraq after a kidnapping. Kydd and Walter’s five strategies of terrorism are intimidation, provocation, spoiling, outbidding and attrition. The strategy of attrition is intended to inflict costs in order to persuade the enemy to yield to the demands of the group conducting the attack. Attrition is considered the most important strategy used by groups engaged in terrorism because the greater the costs the organization is able to inflict the more credible its threat to inflict future costs according to Kydd and Walter.

Attrition strategies compels either the government or occupying forces to reconsider its objectives. Continuing their objectives means incurring greater costs in financial, material and human resources. Thus, groups engaged in terrorism seek to inflict the highest costs on life, infrastructure and other resources. Hamas’s late master bombmaker Yahya Ayyash wrote in a letter to the organization’s leadership. He said “we paid a high price when we used only sling shots and stones. We need to exert more pressure, make the costs of the occupation that much more expensive in human lives, that much more unbearable”. The outcome of attrition strategies is dependent on three variables: the state or occupying force’s interest in the disputed matter, constraints regarding the state or occupying force’s ability to retaliate and its sensitivity to the cost of violence. For example, democracies, such as the US, are far more sensitive to the cost of life primarily due the importance of public opinion within democracies.

The security implications of the use of this strategy by the PMF could be significant. At face value it seems as if attrition is working. None of the 5000 US troops in Iraq have so far left the country but the US has pulled out of three key military bases including al-Qaim and the K1 airbase located in the remote northern province of Kirkuk, the latter base having been targeted previously. The US now plans to consolidate its forces in two locations in Iraq. However, the danger of continuing such attacks is the possibility of a military confrontation between the US and Iran that can lead to a full-scale war. This will mean a greater amount of US presence within Iraq and the Middle East as whole running contrary to PMF and Iranian desires. Moreover, the last military confrontation the US and Iran have had was sparked by the US killing of Qassem Soleimani who led the Quds force of the IRGC responsible for extra-terrestrial clandestine operations which included supporting the PMF militia groups in Iraq. Iran responded by firing missiles at a base in Iraq hosting US troops causing a hundred US soldiers to have brain injuries. It is likely that another confrontation between the two states could occur again if the attacks continue.