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Escalation: Nujaba's Kaabi and the February 16 rocket attack on US forces in Iraq

A photo from the December 31protest at the US embassy gate in Baghdad. (U.S. Army Photo by Maj. Charlie Dietz, Task Force-Iraq Public Affairs))

A rocket attack directed at a Coalition base near the US embassy on the night of February 15-16 raises concerns about recent threats to US forces in Iraq coming from various pro-Iranian groups. The attack was first reported in the early hours of February 16.

Video was posted near the embassy compound in the Green Zone where sirens could be heard. Reports indicated that several rockets had "targeted the US embassy inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, specifically the Union 3 base, which is inside the US embassy, US official confirms."

The Union III base is the location of the joint operations centre for the US-led Coalition. Nafiseh Kohnavard of BBC noted on January 26 during a sunset that it was " beautiful sight for the many returning NATO forces that I've spoken to recently." Kohnavard had been at the same site on January 26 during a rocket attack. "'Seek shelter': We are still advised to take cover in Union III, just across the road from theUS embassy in Green Zone Baghdad. A few rockets allegedly hit nearby. I didn't hear any explosions as we were in hard cover."

It is also the same location where US Army Soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force-Iraq, were photographed on December 31 at "Forward Operating Base Union III, Baghdad, Iraq." These soldiers had been doing overwatch during the embassy protests that day that targeted the gate of the US embassy compound. Union III was the site of an armistice day event on November 11. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited the base on October 23.

US Marines flew to the embassy compound on January 1 with Osprey helicopters while AH-64 Apaches protected the embassy. US CENTCOM General Kenneth McKenzie visited Iraq on February 4 and went Assad base. The US had been seeking a way to send Patriots and air defense to Iraq in late January.

The targeting of this base where US forces have conducted overwatch of the embassy compound shows the deliberate attempt to fire rockets increasingly close to where US forces are present, instead of random shelling of the large embassy compound itself. This is part of a pattern of increasing attacks that are also increasingly precise, but which have largely not resulted in casualties to US forces.

The previous attacks May to December 2019

The attacks fit a pattern of a dozen rocket attacks between October and December that resulted in the death of a US contractor at K-1 base in Kirkuk on December 27. That resulted in US airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah two days later, the embassy protests and the US airstrike on IRGC (الحرس الثوري الإيراني) commander Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran responded with a ballistic missiles targeting Ayn al-Assad base and Erbil on January 8.

A list of the recent attacks notes the following rocket incidents leading up to the

May 19: Near Green Zone

June 16: Balad

June 17: Taji

September 23: Green Zone

October 28: Taji

October 29 Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center

October 30: East of Union III

November 8: Q-West

November 17: Near US embassy

November 22: South of Union III

December 3: Al Asad

December 5: Balad

December 27 attack : Kirkuk K-1

The post-December 27 attacks appear to be a rising series of threats against US forces as pro-Iranian groups consider how to respond.

January 4: Balad and Baghdad. "Two rocket attacks occurred near bases in Baghdad & Balad—13 total attacks in past 2 months," the US says.

January 8: Near the embassy: "The military Coalition confirms small rockets impacted near Baghdad’s International Zone, Jan. 8 at 11:45 p.m."

Ballistic missiles fired from Iran strike Assad base and near Erbil. (video)

On January 14: Taji: "No Coalition troops were affected by this small attack at Taji Base," the Coalition said.

On January 20 three rockets fall near the embassy, two in the large compound and one nearby. A launcher is found in the Zafaraniyeh district. Here the sirens at this link.

The Janaury 21 rocket launcher, Baghdad.

January 26: Dining facility at Union III hit by rockets.

February 10: A convoy south of Baghdad is slightly damaged by an IED.

On February 13 near K-1: "The military Coalition confirms 1 small rocket impacted the Iraqi base hosting Coalition troops in Kirkuk (K1), Feb. 13 at 8:14 p.m. (Iraq Time)."

The February 13 rocket launcher used to fire on K-1 (Coalition)

After the February 13 K-1 attack a launcher was found. The Coalition noted "the military Coalition confirms 1 small rocket impacted the Iraqi base hosting Coalition troops in Kirkuk (K1), Feb. 13 at 8:14 p.m. (Iraq Time). No casualties or damage to facilities."

The February 16 attack

Ghafuri notes that "multiple Katyusha rockets landed inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone in the early hours of Sunday, with at least one falling inside the Union III base, the military facility hosting US-led coalition troops near the US embassy."

The Coalition said "The Coalition confirms small rockets impacted the Iraqi base hosting troops in the International Zone, Feb. 16 at 3:24 a.m. (Iraq Time)."

The launcher used on February 16

A rocket launcher was also found.

The rocket launchers found after each attack appear similar in design to fire 107mm rockets. Not all of them are the same though. Others found in 2019 included rockets that could be fired from the back of a truck or even single rocket launchers found prior to the US-Iran May 2019 tensions. The PMU became proficient at making these during the battles with ISIS.

A rocket launcher found on January 22, 2020 (Right) and one photographed on December 20, 2015 with the PMU.

Other rocket launchers have been found in the past, in 2016 used to target Camp Liberty or huge trucks full of launchers used by ISIS. The design of the recent launchers points to groups within the PMU. These could include Kataib Hezbollah, Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Saraya Khorasani, or Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.

The Nujaba statement and threats

The day priors to the attack Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (حركة النجباء) had threatened the US. Akram al-Kaabi (اكرم الكعبي), head of Nujaba, stood with Hamas' Khalid al-Qaddumi and an Islamic Jihad member named Naser Abu Sharif, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's representative in Iran. They unveiled a new surveillance details about US drones accordng to Nujaba's channel. He was with IRGC deputy commander Ali Fadawi ( العميد فدوي).

Nujaba said "The axis of resistance has moved from defensive to offensive mood." The countdown to removing the US from Iraq was beginning. Kaabi indicated that US forces were being watched at Assad, Taji, Baghdad airport and K-1, referencing attacks there. He indicated that Nujaba was "ready to take a severe revenge for the blood of Soleimani & Mohandis."

On February 15 Nasral Shammari, spokesman of Nujaba, tweeted a photo of a US armored vehicle at night near Assad base noting "we are closer than you think." He noted that the countdown to remove the US had begun. Kaabi was also photographed in Iran showing a map of US drone flights. Another Nujaba video, taken and edited from a US video, from February 14 showed an aerial view of t he US embassy.

Kaabi's work to unify the "resistance" The US has identified Kaabi for his long-term role against US forces and involvement in terrorism. He was one of the first to meet the new IRGC Quds Force leader Esmail Ghaani on January 6. Kataib Hezbollah had said on January 5 to Al-Mayadeen that "they need to consult with allies before launching their operations." Nujaba said the same thing on January 5. "Awaiting orders for zero hour against the occupiers [US]." His threats build on a long career of threatening and fighting against the US.

Kaabi was in Lebanon in 2018 to support Hezbollah. He had been photographed with Soleimani, Muhandis and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in 2016. The US Pentagon notes: "Kabi, a former senior figure in Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, a pro-Iran militia known for high-profile attacks against U.S. forces prior to 2011, split from the group in 2012 to form al Nujaba, a small militia created in support of Iran’s efforts to prop up the Syrian regime. In 2014, al Nujaba joined the PMF, but continued to focus its efforts in Syria. In 2015, al Kabi stated he would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered by Iran’s Supreme Leader and in 2018 threatened to target U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States designated him as a terrorist in 2018."

He has worked closely with Badr, Asaib, Sadr and KH since early January to create a united front against the US. For instance on January 13 he met with other "resistance" factions, ncluding Muqtada al-Sadr, Abu Alaa from the Brigades of the Master of the Martyrs, and Laith al-Khazali, on the authority of Asa’ib al-Haqq. Also, Abu Doaa al-Issawi and Abu Yasser were the leaders in the Peace Corps (Saraya al-Salam) in Qom. Hezbollah has sent Mohammad al-Kawtharani to Iraq to aid the Hashd al-Shaabi, of which many of these groups are a part. Recent statements by IRGC Aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh and Hezbollah's Nasrallah point to a growing chorus urging at attack on the US after the 40th day of mourning for Soleimani passed on February 14. That appeared to be the "countdown" that Nujaba was referencing.

The US describes Kaabi as a terrorist and part of Iran's network.

It now appears that the attack on February 16 is a prelude to the threats Nujaba has made. He has said "we are resuming covert operations against U.S. Forces; Our IEDS, rockets will chase America out of Iraq once again."

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