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Iranian-backed militias likely behind deadly rocket attacks on US-led base, experts say

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WASHINGTON Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were most likely behind a deadly rocket barrage at a US-led coalition base in northern Iraq earlier this week, but it didn’t It is not clear whether Iran played a role in directing the attack, experts and a US official said on Friday. .

The attack on Irbil on Monday in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq bore the telltale signs of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, with tactics, weapons and online posts that looked like previous assaults on US targets in Iraq, a current US official, a former senior US diplomat and a regional expert told NBC News.

Iran said on Tuesday it had no connection with the group that claimed to have carried out the attack.

“Iran regards the stability and security of Iraq as a key issue for the region and rejects any action which disturbs peace and order in this country,” said the spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry Saeed Khatibzadeh, according to official media. He condemned what he called “the suspicious attempts to attribute (the attack) to Iran”.

A US official familiar with the matter, along with other regional experts, said it was not clear whether Iran had led or encouraged its militia allies to carry out the attack.

But Douglas Silliman, who served as US Ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, said: “I have no doubt who is behind this. It is the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias who are behind this. . “

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“This was a seriously planned attack using the military experience that the Shiite militias have gained over the past decade in fighting Daesh and training Iran, and using weapons, almost certainly supplied. by Iran, “the former diplomat said.

The attack featured at least 14 107mm rockets, a preferred weapon Iran has provided to militias for more than a decade, launched from a truck. At least two rockets struck inside the heavily guarded base that includes Irbil civilian international airport, according to the Pentagon.

An obscure group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or Guardians of the Blood, claimed responsibility for the attack that killed a civilian contractor and injured a member of the US service and other coalition troops. But Silliman and other experts said the group was just a front organization created by the main Shiite militias.

The militias “created a number of these small groups to try to avoid responsibility for the use of violence,” said Silliman, now chairman of the Arab Gulf States Institute think tank in Washington.

Despite parallels to previous rocket attacks, officials in the Biden administration have yet to publicly state who they believe is responsible.

“We continue to consult with our Iraqi partners and their efforts to investigate the attacks,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Jessica McNulty said.

The attack came at a delicate diplomatic time as President Joe Biden seeks to initiate talks with Tehran that could see the United States re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal and reimposed US economic sanctions that had been lifted under the terms of the deal, known as JCPOA.

For the administration, “at the moment it is convenient not to know who carried out this attack, and it would be impractical to know who carried out this attack,” said Michael Knights, a member of the Washington Institute think tank. for Near East Policy, which tracks activists. groups in Iraq.

Silliman said it would strike him as “a bad negotiating tactic for the Iranians to start shooting US forces just as President Biden tries to find a way back into the JCPOA. But it is also entirely possible for the groups supplied and trained by Iran did so on their own. “

It was possible that the attack was an attempt by a militia group to assert themselves amid growing rivalry between Iranian-backed forces, according to Knights, who advised the U.S. military and governments of the United States. Middle East on security issues.

Since an American drone strike in January 2020 that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a senior leader of one of Iraq’s main Shiite militias, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a power struggle has unfolded between the various militias. supported by Iran, he mentioned.

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The knights said Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or AAH, one of the three main militia groups, was likely responsible for the rocket barrage. The group has become “a new, very aggressive, ambitious and trying to become permanent force,” he said.

Thirteen minutes before the attack, another group linked to Iranian-linked militias sent a cryptic note on social media that appeared to announce possible targeting of Kurds, criticizing the Kurdish regional government, Knights said.

Only 23 minutes after the attack, the first propaganda images of the dam were posted on Sabereen, a media outlet linked to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Knights said.

Monday’s rocket attack came from the same area as the previous rocket attack on Irbil last year, he added.

Knight said previous U.S. administrations have sometimes tolerated violence from Iranian-backed proxies to avoid derailing diplomatic initiatives, but argued Washington should send a signal that it will not tolerate new attacks, although it is not clear whether Tehran has given the green light.

It doesn’t matter whether Iran ordered the attack or not, he said. “The point is, the Biden administration can tell the Iranians, ‘Don’t do this anymore, or we won’t talk,'” Knights said.

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