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US troops in Syria, Iraq targeted with renewed rocket and drone attacks

Iran-backed militias are not buying the Pentagon's attempt to rebrand the coalition's defeat-ISIS mission.
Iraq rockets

Rockets rained down near bases used by US troops in Iraq and Syria on Wednesday, marking the third straight day of such attacks since the two-year anniversary of the US killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on Monday.

No one was reported injured in the barrages, which targeted the US-led coalition’s site near al-Omar oilfield in Syria, Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase in Anbar province and the international airport in Baghdad, which houses Iraqi and coalition troops.

In Syria eight rockets landed inside the perimeter of the Green Village base, the coalition said in a statement today. Coalition troops fired six artillery rounds in response, targeting launch sites just outside the nearby Euphrates River valley town of al-Mayadin. 

At least five rockets also landed near Asad Airbase west of Baghdad today. The coalition said none of the projectiles hit the base, with the closest landing more than a mile away.

Iraqi security forces said they recovered a launcher and unfired 240mm rocket in the al-Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad on Wednesday morning.

A group calling itself Saraya Qasem al-Jabaareen claimed credit for the attempted attack on Ayn al-Asad in a written statement released Wednesday. The group vowed to continue the strikes until US forces fully withdraw from the country. 

The coalition’s commander, US Army Maj. Gen. John Brennan, blamed Iran-backed militias for the attack in Syria. The fusillade “caused minor damage,” the coalition said in a statement.

Coalition forces yesterday afternoon launched preemptive strikes against “several launch sites” observed posing “an imminent threat” near Green Village, the coalition said. On Monday, US air defenses shot down explosives-laden drones near Baghdad’s airport and at Asad airbase.

During a press briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday, spokesperson John Kirby said US officials are working under the assumption that Iran-backed militias are behind the attacks.

Armed groups supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have a significant presence in eastern Syria in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad and throughout Iraq’s central provinces in the wake of the war against the Islamic State (IS). 

The US maintains some 2,500 military advisors and support personnel in Iraq, most of whom are based at three key headquarters, and an additional 900 troops at bases in northeastern and southern Syria.

The militias have continuously vowed to expel US forces from the region since then-US President Donald Trump ordered Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani assassinated in January 2019.

The renewed barrages follow several months of relative calm in Iraq following the IS war, though precision drone attacks thought to be carried out by the militias have continued on both sides of the border

The rocket bombardments, once frequent in Iraq, largely fell silent after US President Joe Biden and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced last July that the remaining US combat troops would be out of the country by the end of 2021.

Iraq's militias have threatened that the harassment will continue if Washington does not pull its remaining troops from the country by the deadline. Qais al-Khazali, founder of Iraq's Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, said at the time that the July announcement was "not explicit" and that it "bears ambiguity and fraud."

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Soleimani’s replacement, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, renewed their vows of revenge in speeches marking the anniversary of the commander’s killing on Monday. Ghani noted in his speech that the number of US forces has been declining in the region, in line with the deceased IRGC commander’s goals.

A spokesperson for Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, one of the most prominent Iran-backed militias in Iraq, said today the latest attacks were a "natural result" of the failure of US forces to withdraw from the country.

The US-led coalition reduced its presence in Iraq by roughly half last year amid the sunset of the defeat-IS mission and persistent rocket bombardments. Biden administration officials have said in recent months that there are no plans to withdraw the remaining troops from either Iraq or Syria anytime soon.

The latest barrages signal the return of an old headache for coalition officials as they work to shore up the capabilities of Iraqi and Syrian security forces. Coalition commander John Brennan on Wednesday called the attacks a “dangerous distraction” from the fight against remaining Islamic State sleeper cells.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, spokesperson Kirby acknowledged today that the drone attacks in particular in Iraq and Syria have become “increasingly precise and increasingly lethal."

“The threat is growing, in specificity and precision,” Kirby said, adding that US commanders have been “encouraged to change their own tactics, technique and procedures” to defend against the attacks.

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