A military base hosting US troops in Iraq was targeted by around 10 rockets on Wednesday morning, ending any illusions that President Joe Biden’s strike on Iran-backed militants in Syria would deter such actions.
Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesperson for US-led anti-ISIS coalition forces, said Grad-style rockets struck al-Asad airbase in western Iraq around 7:20 am local time. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby added hours later that no US troops had sustained injuries in the strike but that one American civilian contractor had experienced a fatal “cardiac episode” while sheltering from rockets.
While no group has taken responsibility for the barrage, it bears strong resemblance to the rocket attacks frequently launched by Iran-backed Shia militia groups at American and allied troops in Iraq.
Multiple outlets reported the launchpad was found outside the nearby city of al-Baghdadi in Anbar province, and CNN noted that a pro-militia group on Telegram published unconfirmed images of the weapon. That tracks with Kirby’s Wednesday morning statement that the rockets were fired from east of the sprawling base.
Wednesday’s attack comes six days after Biden authorized the US military to bomb nine facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria to smuggle weapons. Biden’s team said it was in retaliation for weeks of rocket launches at coalition forces outside Erbil, Iraq — which killed a Filipino contractor and injured US troops — and near the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Kirby told reporters at the time, “Clearly we want there to be a deterrence message here, delivered straight to them, about the repercussions of going after our people and our Iraqi partners and our facilities inside Iraq.”
Biden himself told congressional leaders in a Saturday letter that “I directed this military action to protect and defend our personnel and our partners against these attacks and future such attacks.”
It looks like the message of deterrence the administration tried to send wasn’t received.
The tit-for-tat is only likely to continue, some experts say, and there’s a chance of escalation.
That’s a problem for the Biden administration, which is simultaneously trying to orchestrate America’s reentry into the Iran nuclear deal. To do that, Washington and Tehran must agree to a diplomatic framework whereby the US lifts sanctions on Iran and the Islamic Republic ceases violating the pact’s terms on nuclear development.
Reaching such an agreement is hard in the best of circumstances. It’s even harder when both sides are attacking each other.
Sign up for The Weeds newsletter. Every Friday, you’ll get an explainer of a big policy story from the week, a look at important research that recently came out, and answers to reader questions — to guide you through the first 100 days of President Joe Biden’s administration.