The Militias Blamed for Firing Rockets at US Troops in Iraq

The number of rocket attacks on US positions in Baghdad continues to rise as tensions grow between Shiite militias and the coalition in Iraq.
iraq us embassy attack
A soldier outside the US embassy in Iraq after it was stormed by protesters. Photo: Murtadha Sudani / Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

Rockets continued to fly over the Tigris River in Baghdad on Monday, targeting the US embassy inside the Iraqi capital's fortified Green Zone.

The attack came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi that the US would close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad if the government failed to stop the rocket attacks.

Between October of 2019 and July of this year, around 40 rockets have been fired at the US embassy and bases housing American troops by Iranian-backed militias, who have openly vowed to continue attacking Americans for as long as the US keeps its troops in Iraq.

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Early Monday morning, the Iraqi military reported that two Katyusha rockets had been fired into Baghdad, without any casualties. The US-led coalition blamed “terrorists” for the attack in a tweet.

On Wednesday night, several rockets launched from an open area near the town of Bartella, east of Mosul, landed in the vicinity of Erbil's international airport, in Kurdistan, north Iraq.

The attack, which came as a surprise in the relatively safe region, is thought to have been targeting US troops. According to a statement from Iraqi Kurdistan’s counterterrorism service, the missiles were intercepted and did not cause any major damage.

After an increase in rocket attacks, the US government has been trying to pressure its allies in Baghdad to take more decisive action against the militia groups. Last week, Prime Minister Kadhimi pledged to protect overseas missions in Iraq, but has so far been unable to curb the groups’ activities.

Kurdistan’s interior ministry blamed last Wednesday night’s attack on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a militia group formed of more than 30 Shiite factions, which grew into a paramilitary force of thousands during the fight against ISIS. The militiamen later integrated into the Iraqi armed forces, but the US has repeatedly asked Iraqi officials to tighten their grip on PMF fighters, based on allegations that they have operated outside of Baghdad’s security apparatus and pursued Iranian interests in the country.

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An abandoned white truck with rocket launchers welded to it was found near the town of Bartella, 60km west of Erbil, which is currently under the control of the PMF. A local PMF member, who asked not to be named, told VICE News that he wasn’t aware of the attacks.

“It is clear from the vehicle used in the rocket attack that it isn’t from our unit, and we don’t have authority to investigate. The police need to present their findings,” he said. “Surprisingly, everyone is too worried about the Americans, forgetting what they brought upon this country. They thought they could get away without paying the price of their wrongdoings, but they are wrong.”

Another militia blamed for the rocket attacks, Katai’b Hezbollah – a group that Washington has called an Iran-backed terrorist organisation – has been fighting US troops periodically since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Katai’b Hezbollah started to attack US troops stationed in Iraq more often after the group’s leader, Abu Mahdi Al Mohandes, died in the January drone attack on Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, which was ordered by President Trump.

Last Saturday, Abu Ali Al-Askari, a senior commander, renewed the militia’s commitment to fighting the US presence in Iraq, saying they will “crush the US troops on Iraq’s soil”

Al-Askari also responded to Pompeo’s threat about closing the US embassy in Baghdad, saying, “Your threatenings and trembling statements would turn against you and your foolish president.”