An attack on US-led Coalition at Camp Taji, March 11, 2020: Escalation and questions of deterrence
Updated: Mar 16
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A rocket attack on Camp Taji Iraq on march 11 has killed Americans and has led to tensions in Iraq. CENTCOM says "Three Coalition personnel were killed during a rocket attack on Camp Taji, Iraq, March 11. Approximately 12 additional personnel were wounded during the attack. The attack is under investigation by the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. Camp Taji is an Iraqi base that hosts Coalition personnel for training and advising missions. Approximately 18 107mm Katyusha rockets struck the base. The Iraqi Security Forces found a rocket-rigged truck, a few miles from Camp Taji."
It is the latest of numerous attacks in Iraq as US-Iran tensions rose over the last year. In December a US contractor was killed at K-1 near Kirkuk. The US responded to the December rocket fire with attacks on five Kataib Hezbollah targets. In response pro-Iranian groups, many linked to the Popular Mobilization Units, stormed the US embassy compound, setting the stage for the current escalation. The Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) has profiled past attacks as well as ongoing protests in Iraq and Iranian-backed paramilitaries in Iraq. The following is the background and assessment about the current serious incident.
On January 1 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote "the attack today was orchestrated by terrorists – Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Qays al-Khazali – and abetted by Iranian proxies – Hadi al Amari and Faleh al-Fayyad. All are pictured below outside our embassy."
Two days later, on January 3, a US airstrike killed Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
On January 8 Iran fired ballistic missiles at Ayn al-Assad base in Iraq. "Satellite photos taken Wednesday show that an Iranian missile strike has caused extensive damage at the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq, which hosts U.S. and coalition troops," noted NPR.
Since January 8 another series of attacks have been made on bases where US forces are located and against the Green Zone, particularly Union III, in Baghdad. “Rocket attack alarms sounding off multiple times on the #US #Baghdad Embassy Complex and Union III. Heard the booms myself on Union III. Speakers telling all to take shelter immediately," wrote Nafiseh Kohnavard on January 20.
Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq's largest political party, coordinating with Hadi al-Amiri of Badr, pushed for a million-person anti-US march in January. The protesters massed on January 24. Sadr had previously met with PMU members in Qom where he was living in Iran. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba posted photos. "shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr meets w/ the Islamic resistance armed forces of #Iraq who are Iranian backed in Sadr’s office in Qom in central #Iran today to discuss the expelling of the #US troops from Iraq according to Al-Nujaba pro-Iran militia source," noted Lawk Ghafuri on January 13. In the mean time Hezbollah sent Sheikh Mohammed al-Kawtharani. He had been in Iraq already since early January.
In early February, Nujaba sent its leader Akram al-Kaabi to Iran. He said "Our decision to start the countdown to achieve sovereignty and respond to the American occupation forces militarily is an Iraqi decision with distinction, and we will not allow interference from any party, and we apologize for the response to any external or internal request to postpone it even from friends, with our respect for all blood and belief partners, and it will be in the name of the martyr commander." Nujaba threatened US forces at Ayn al-Assad with videos.
On February 5 US CENTCOM General Kenneth McKenzie met with Iraq's Prime Minister at Balad air force base. Pro-Iranian groups referred to Mckenzie as a "terrorist." Pro-Iranian groups claimed "in despite of parliament’s resolution and politicians and groups of #Iraq demand in #US leaving Iraq, USA is planning to expand its bases in #Kurdistan and setting air defense systems in other Iraqi bases." On March 11 reports emerged that the US had finally figured out how to bring air defense to Iraq. "We are in the process of bringing air defense systems, ballistic missile defense systems into Iraq – particularly to protect ourselves against another potential Iranian attack," CENTCOM Gen. McKenzie said. Two US Marine Raiders had just been killed fighting ISIS.
On the last day in February Abu Ali al Askari, the security official for Kataib Hezbollah said on Twitter that he was warning Iraqis working with Americans in the country. "Owners of Iraqi transportation and security companies...a final and irreversible warning." This formed part of a series of warnings from Kaabi, Amiri, Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq and others.
We have profiled the appointment of Abu Fadak to replace Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the growing tensions with Iran. On March 8 Iran's head of the Supreme National Security Council travelled to Iraq where he "met and held talks with Iraq's National Security Adviser and the head of the PMU Falih al-Fayadh in Baghdad on Sunday." His goal was to continue the countdown to removing US forces, reports said. During his trip IRNA notes "During his two-day visit to Iraq, Shamkhani held talks with leaders of the Iraqi political parties and secretary general of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri." See our previous analysis on this visit. See Iranian media coverage of his trip.
On March 11 the situation escalated. US-led Coalition spokesman Col. Myles Caggins wrote that "The Coalition confirms more than 15 small rockets impacted Iraq’s Camp Taji base hosting Coalition troops, March 11 at 7:35 p.m. (Iraq Time). Assessment and investigation ongoing."
Brett McGurk noted "Troubling reports of American and British casualties after a rocket attack in north-central Iraq. Before last fall there had been no such rocket attacks in nearly eight years. Now they are happening nearly every week. My thoughts are with our people and partners under fire." Iran's Press TV says "Nearly a dozen Katyusha rockets have hit a military base housing American troops near the Iraqi capital Baghdad, but there were no immediate reports about anyone wounded or any damage caused in the attack." Stars and Stripes reported "Two Americans and one Briton were killed in a barrage of more than 15 “small rockets” that struck Iraq’s Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, where U.S. and other coalition troops are based, a security official said Wednesday."
Iraq's security forces had found the launchers, as they have in the past. The US has also identified key Iranian-backed individuals in Iraq in the past, setting the stage for possible retaliation. However the US Congress has also pushed back against US President Donald Trump's ability to launch a conflict with Iran.
Reports on March 11 indicated airstrikes may have been carried out in Syria near Albukamal against units (حيدريون) associated with the PMU. The date of the attack, coming after a dozen attacks this year and another dozen last year, could be coincidental, but it is the 63rd birthday of Qasem Soleimani. The US in the past has pointed a finger at Iran for the rocket attacks. In early December David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told reporters in a briefing: “We’re waiting for full evidence, but if past is prologue then there’s a good chance that Iran was behind it." He warned Iran on December 12. He also spoke about other reports; "there’s a couple of different reports coming out about Iran. There’s been great attention lately being paid to these reports about Iranian ballistic missiles being stored in Iraq." he said on February 26 that recent US actions: "are an important step toward reestablishing deterrence, showing what we are willing to do, following through on the President’s commitment to – and the Secretary of State’s commitment to hold Iran directly responsible for the actions of its proxies."
The March 11 attack will lead to questions about that deterrence.
Pompeo phones Iraq's PM to condemn attacks. "Discussed the deadly attacks on #Iraq’s Camp Taji military base with Prime Minister @AdilAbdAlMahdi. These actions will not be tolerated and the groups responsible must be held accountable by the Government of Iraq."