By David Brennan On 3/5/21 at 5:03 AM EST
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby has come under fire for his apparent hesitation to link Iran to Shia militias operating in Iraq and launching attacks against U.S. and allied troops, following the latest rocket barrage against Iraq’s Ain Al Asad air base this week.
Kirby spoke with reporters on Wednesday shortly after the attack, during which one American civilian contractor died of a heart attack. The U.S. has not yet apportioned blame for the rocket attack, and no group has claimed responsibility.
But the operation bears the hallmarks of attacks by Iran-aligned Shia Iraqi militias, which regularly target American, Iraqi and allied forces with artillery, IEDs, rockets, and other weapons.
This week’s attack on Ain Al Asad follows a similar strike on the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan last month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded several Americans. That attack prompted American retaliatory airstrikes in Syria, targeting fighters belonging to Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups.
But Kirby’s apparent hesitance to link Iran to this week’s attack has prompted criticism online. The Pentagon spokesperson broke with common parlance to describe the suspected perpetrators as “Shia-backed militias,” rather than Iran-backed groups, even after reporters in Wednesday’s briefing challenged the phrase.
“Obviously it’s a rocket attack and we have seen rocket attacks come from Shia-backed militia groups in the past,” Kirby said of this week’s operation.
He added: “We’ve long been open and honest about the threats that arise from these rocket attacks that are being perpetrated by some Shia-backed militia. And we’ve not been bashful about calling it out when we’ve seen it.”
But reporters took issue with Kirby’s phrasing. “When you say Shia-backed militias, do you mean Shia militias or Iran backed…” one journalist asked, before Kirby cut him off and replied: “I mean Shia-backed militias.”
Asked to explain what that meant, Kirby responded: “No seriously. I mean Shia-backed militia.” Pressed again on the phrase, the spokesperson said: “I’ve been using that phrase pretty much since I’ve been up here and we know that—and I’ve said this—that some of the Shia-backed militias have… Iranian backing.”
Past statements, including the Pentagon confirmation of last month’s airstrikes in Syria, have referred to such Iraqi Shia groups as “Iranian-backed militia.”
Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of the Gulf State Analytics geopolitical risk company, said Kirby’s phrasing was “rather weird.” Jason Brodsky, the policy director of the United Against Nuclear Iran group, said the exchange with Kirby was “bizarre.”
Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote on Twitter that Kirby’s comments hinted at a return to the “absurdities” of former President Barack Obama’s Iran strategy.
Dubowitz said Kirby is “a great American,” but “the fact that he has to offer these verbal contortions to whitewash the role of the regime in Iran in attacking Americans is the fault of senior leadership.”
There is significant overlap between Shia militias and Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq, but not all of the former are aligned with Tehran.
Though the Iranian regime wields huge influence in the country, local Shia leaders—chief among them Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr—command enormous popular followings and pursue their own interests, often with a nationalist tinge.
A deft politician who has repeatedly rebranded himself, Sadr has demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq, whether American or Iranian, and has called for Iran-backed militias to be absorbed into the Iraqi armed forces.
Sadr has also worked to build bridges with Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia and its Sunni royal family.
Forces loyal to Sistani have previously worked with the Americans against Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and the ayatollah has been held up by hawks like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a powerful bulwark against Tehran’s influence.
Kirby’s words may be an administration attempt to soften the American response and avoid further escalation, but could also be a reflection of the fact that the investigation is yet to identify exactly which group was responsible for the Ain Al Asad attack.
President Joe Biden has said he will “make judgements” about a response to this week’s attack once the Iraqi-U.S. investigation finds those responsible. “We are following that through right now,” Biden told reporters Wednesday.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: “If we assess further response is warranted, we will take action again in a manner and time of our choosing.”
Last month’s airstrikes in Syria were designed to deter further attacks against American and allied targets, but Iran-backed militias have continued to agitate in Iraq. Biden is juggling these tit-for-tat actions with his hope of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran and avoiding military escalation in the region.
This article has been updated to provide further background on the Shia militia movement in Iraq.
A picture taken on January 13, 2020 shows a view of the damage at Ain Al Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. AYMAN HENNA/AFP via Getty Images