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Erbil Rocket Attack: Is the U.S.-Iran Conflict Escalating Again?

After several months of relative calm, tensions in Iraq have once again transformed the country into a battlefield between the United States and Iran. On February 15th, unknown assailants launched missiles at Erbil International Airport, targeting a military base hosting the U.S.-led counterterrorism coalition. The attack killed a foreign contractor and injured several others, including U.S. soldiers and civilians. The Iran-backed militias within Iraq were promptly accused of perpetrating the attack; they, and Tehran, have denied it and denounced the accusations.

Conflicting Messages on the Attack

While missile attacks against the U.S. Embassy and military bases hosting U.S. troops have periodically been launched for more than the past two years, the last significant attack on a U.S. base in 2019 brought the Gulf region to the brink of war. In December 2019, a missile attack killed a U.S. contractor. Washington retaliated by bombing the camps of Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Forces’ leaders. The conflict quickly escalated—a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, following a violent demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad three days prior. Washington accused Tehran of orchestrating the attack on its embassy since Iranian-backed militia and party leaders led the demonstrators. Although a wider U.S.-Iran war seemed almost certain in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, cooler heads prevailed, and the two sides de-escalated in the following months. Still, rocket attacks against U.S. interests in Baghdad continued thereafter, prompting Trump Administration officials to suggest moving the U.S. Embassy from Baghdad to a more peaceful location in September 2020.

Now, there is a new president in the White House with a less stringent foreign policy design for Tehran. Swift condemnation followed the February 15th attack. Iraqi President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Al-Halbousi denounced the attack, as did scores of lower-level officials from across Iraq’s sectarian and political divides. Even Tehran, nominally in charge of its militias within Iraq, condemned the action. The only group that remained silent was the pro-Iran bloc within Baghdad made up of militia leaders, Iraqi party leaders, and Tehran-backed Members of Parliament. The head of the Iran-backed “Al-Fateh” bloc, Hadi Al-Ameri, delivered a speech after the attack which did not comment on the incident but generally denounced the U.S. presence in Iraq and reminded Washington that its troops were unwelcome.

Iraq’s Security Challenges

If not universally welcome, there is a strong case that U.S. troops are more necessary for Iraqi stability now than at any point since the territorial defeat of ISIS in December 2017. Over the past three months, attacks by ISIS sleeper cells have surged in both Syria and Iraq; in one incident in Baghdad on January 22nd, a double suicide bombing by ISIS militants killed 32 civilians and injured over one hundred others. In neighboring Syria, ISIS attacks on U.S.-backed forces and Assad-backed militias have recorded their fastest increase since 2018. With the resurgence of ISIS, and given the other tumultuous events of 2020, Iraq stands to gain much stability and security from the continued presence of U.S. troops.

Moreover, although Tehran swiftly condemned the most recent attack, it is clear by now that Tehran could control such attacks if it wished to. After a series of escalating rocket attacks in the fall of 2020, prompting fears that the United States was preparing for a full-blown military conflict, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered a moratorium on Iraqi rocket attacks in late October. Thereafter, the attacks ceased for two months, only resuming in February.

A Message from Tehran?

The Erbil attack comes as the long-awaited resumption of Iranian-American talks under President Biden faces an impasse. Neither Tehran nor Washington is willing to grant any concessions to revive the JCPOA. As the Iran-backed militia, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, has claimed responsibility for the attack, it is a clear indication to the Biden Administration that Tehran can strike U.S. troops anywhere in Iraq, even in the nominally safer Kurdistan Regional Government area. Moreover, if U.S. sanctions on Iran are not lifted, U.S. presence in Iraq could once again become a retaliatory target. The attack could also send a message to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and Erbil that Tehran will continue its proxy conflict with the United States in Iraq until American troops leave once and for all.

Since the United States has no clear plans about leaving Iraq, and will likely respond to any Iranian displays of force by escalating the conflict, Iraq will likely remain vulnerable to similar attacks for the foreseeable future. If, however, Washington and Tehran find a formula for successful negotiations, Iraq will be one of the primary beneficiaries of a U.S.-Iranian détente.

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