US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi discussed a recent spate of rocket attacks on US-led coalition forces in the country with both saying those responsible should be “held fully to account”.
Renewed attacks on US targets in Iraq show Iran-aligned factions are heaping pressure on the Iraqi government, while Tehran may be seeking leverage over the new US administration, analysts say.
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Iraq, scarred by decades of war and insurgency, has been a strategic battleground for arch-foes the United States and Iran, both allies of Baghdad who remain sharply at odds over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Analysts and officials in Iraq say the resumption of attacks after four months of relative calm shows Iran and its Iraqi allies are now abandoning de-escalation and seeking leverage over their rivals.
“It seems we’re back to last year,” a senior US military official in Iraq told AFP news agency, referring to several months in 2020 when rockets rained down on American sites once a week or more.
On Monday, at least three rockets were fired at the US embassy in the high-security Green Zone in Iraq’s capital.
“[Biden and al-Kadhimi] discussed the recent rocket attacks against Iraqi and coalition personnel and agreed that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account,” the White House said in a statement of the two leaders’ call on Tuesday.
Most attacks do not cause casualties but the latest rocket attack on Monday was the third in Iraq in just over a week, aimed at Green Zone areas that host US troops, diplomats or contractors.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday the US holds Iran responsible for the recent attacks.
“What we will not do is lash out and risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran and contributes to their attempts to further destabilise Iraq,” Price told reporters.
The attacks are usually claimed by shadowy groups that Iraqi and US officials say are “smokescreens” for pro-Iran factions inside Iraq.
Iran has said it opposes any acts that harmed Iraq’s security and denied suggestions that it had any links to the violence.
Rockets also hit a military complex in the Kurdish region’s capital Erbil on February 15, killing a civilian and a foreign contractor working with US-led troops.
The incidents were consistent with the dozens of attacks last year, which usually involved a score of 107mm rockets fired from a truck, security officials said.
‘Same style of attacks’
This year, the pro-Iran groups typically blamed for such attacks – including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq – have been quick to condemn the strikes.
Security sources, however, are not convinced.
“All indications are it’s the same style of attacks,” said the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And intelligence shared with us says there are more to come.”
The Iraqi prime minister has pledged to put a halt to rocket attacks but has struggled to hold the groups to account, infuriating the United States.
In October, the US threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad if the attacks did not stop.
There are “domestic considerations” as Iraqi armed groups are keen to challenge al-Kadhimi’s assertion that he can rein them in, said Aniseh Bassiri of the Royal United Service Institute.
“They want to remind everyone they have not disappeared and show the PM they have not been restrained,” she said.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for October, these factions, whose political branches are running at the polls, are flexing their muscles, Bassiri added.
But the rockets may also carry a message from Tehran to Washington, which under Biden is offering to revive the Iran nuclear deal that predecessor Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
Iran is demanding Washington lift sanctions immediately, while the US wants Iran to move first by returning to all its previous nuclear commitments.
Iran has struck a tough tone this week, restricting some nuclear site inspections and warning it could further step up uranium enrichment.
“The renewed attacks could be an attempt by those close to Iran to increase Tehran’s leverage in light of looming talks with the US,” Bassiri said.
For now it remains to be seen how Biden will respond to the new attacks. A firm US military reaction, however, may not be off the table.
The US military official said in talks with Washington: “We’ve provided options, including striking inside and outside of Iraq, but we haven’t heard yet from the new administration.”