At least three rockets were fired last Monday towards the Iraqi military air base in Balad, just north of Baghdad, Iraqi security officials told AFP news agency. The base houses American company Sallyport, which maintains F-16 Iraqi aircraft purchased from the US. There were no casualties, the Pentagon said in a statement, although one foreign contractor working for Sallyport was injured. The attack comes less than 24 hours after two rockets targeted Iraq’s Baghdad airport base hosting US-led coalition troops. While no group has claimed responsibility for either attack, similar assaults have been perpetrated by Iranian-backed militia in the past, Reuters reports.
The strike marks the latest of over 30 rocket or bomb attacks on US interests in Iraq since President Joe Biden took office in January, adding to the dozens of similar attacks that were carried out during the Trump administration, according to a report from Al Jazeera. The targets of these attacks have ranged from US troops, Iraqi supply convoys, and the US embassy, resulting in the deaths of two foreign contractors, one Iraqi contractor, and eight Iraqi civilians this year alone. Although Washington has often blamed Iran-backed military factions based in Iraq for such attacks, they have yet to publicly identify whom they believe is responsible for the most recent rocket strikes. “We’re going to respect that,” said US Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby of the responsibility of the Iraqi authorities to investigate the matter independently.
Failure to deter or condemn such acts of violence sets a dangerous precedent. However, the attacks come at a delicate time for President Biden as he seeks to restart diplomatic negotiations with Tehran about re-entering the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement from which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign. The possibility of Iranian involvement in the continued rocket strikes raises questions about whether escalating tensions between the US and Iran may threaten the Biden administration’s agenda. According to a report from US News in March, Iran has rejected the prospect of a new deal until Biden lifts the crippling economic sanctions which Trump put in place upon pulling back from the accord. Meanwhile, Iran has continued to pursue uranium enrichment at levels which the State Department says clearly indicate the development of nuclear weapons.
Relations between the US and Iran have been especially strained since Trump ordered the drone strike in January 2020 that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who had been responsible for coordinating the militias in Iraq, as well as a prominent Iraqi commander of those forces. Revenge for the assassinations has fuelled the continued attacks on US interests in Iraq, though Biden’s response has been more conciliatory than his predecessor’s. A retaliatory airstrike in February by US forces on an Iranian-backed militia position in Syria was seen as a calculated attempt to deter the attacks without escalating tensions with Iran, notably taking place outside Iraq so as to avoid provoking the pro-Iranian militia there, US News reports.
Still, there have been calls from Iraqi lawmakers for the removal of US troops from the region. In a statement made after a similar rocket strike in March, the commander in chief of Iraq’s security forces stressed the importance of Iraq distancing itself from regional and international competitions for power. However, Iraq is in a particularly vulnerable position because of its joint dependence on the United States for support in its fight against ISIS and on Iran as its largest neighbour and trading partner. Although a non-binding resolution passed by the Iraqi Parliament in 2020 urged the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraq, over 2,500 US troops remain in the country even after strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington over US military presence.
Escalating tensions between the US and Iran, then, not only place the likelihood of a nuclear agreement in jeopardy, but also pose a threat to security in Iraq, who has borne the brunt of the violence and damage caused by the Iranian attacks. It is critical that Biden’s attempts to move forward diplomatically involve Iraq and that talks with the Iraqi government over the removal of US troops continue alongside the push for revived negotiations with Iran if peace in the region is to be anything but a zero-sum game.