Collecting and analyzing Shiite militia attacks against the U.S. presence in Iraq

There is a growing consensus that attacks against U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq by Iran-backed Shiite Militia Groups (SMGs) are increasingly becoming a “new normal.” These attacks ebb and flow pursuant to several political conditions, some of which remain outside the control of the U.S. Having both quantitative and qualitative data about each attack can help parse Iranian and allied-Shiite militia intentions, contextualize their strategy, and provide an in-depth understanding for U.S. policymakers and the general public about potential buffers and drivers of escalation in Iraq.

Making Sense of Escalation Drivers by Shiite Militias in Iraq

Escalation by SMGs in Iraq is not mono-causal, but it is generalizable and therefore assessable. In the past two years, escalation against the U.S. presence in Iraq via rocket and mortar attacks has featured at least one of the three drivers below:

1) Iran responding to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign through its militia network.

2) Pro-Iran forces in Iraq responding to a shifting balance of power; be it on the battlefield, in Baghdad/Iraqi domestic politics, or both. Often, this escalation seeks both political and military ends. For example, the eviction of the U.S. forces from Iraq, or improving the relative position of a militia in the eyes of its patron or peers.

3) Iran and pro-Iran forces responding to the targeted killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) Deputy Commander Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad by the U.S.

Unpacking the Drivers

Prior to the onset of the maximum pressure campaign (which commenced with the U.S. leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] nuclear deal in May 2018) the military activities of Iran’s militia network in Iraq were almost entirely driven by localized conditions, be they from the battlefield or from Iraq’s turbulent domestic politics, aka, driver number two. During this period, escalation was less about political signaling, and more overall warfighting. As it relates to a more generalizable patron-proxy relationship, this approach would be akin to the patron providing a “longer leash,” and intervening for purposes of coordination.

However, with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. JCPOA walkout (May 2019), proxy attacks became one source of leverage for Iran to turn up the heat on Washington as well as to signal resolve in the face of ongoing maximum pressure. Accordingly, analysts can better understand escalation by SMGs in Iraq during this time as (primarily, but not exclusively) a product of driver number one. Transposing this dynamic onto patron-proxy relationships more generally, this period would theoretically feature a “shorter leash,” or more oversight for the proxy by the patron.

Of note during this period (and as is reflected in the table and graph further below) are the months of July and August, where there appear to be zero reported attacks. Instead, during those months reports began to surface about Israeli military strikes against Iranian/SMG interests in Iraq, something SMGs could (and have) blamed America for. Escalation in the fall of 2019 may also be, in part, a response to this phenomenon.

With the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis in January 2020 by the U.S., escalation returned to being driven by more localized factors, including a desire to exact vengeance directly against the U.S. The surge in attacks against the U.S. presence in Iraq in January best exemplifies this. Since January however, escalation is best understood as a combination of drivers three, two, and one, but in that order. The reason driver three is the main component here is because the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis continues to have an outsized impact on Iran’s regional threat network. Iran is now working to reorganize its partners and solidify gains in an ever-changing Baghdad. This means that escalation will not only tell us about patron/proxy intentions and strategy, but militia loyalty and emerging leadership hierarchies. For example, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq have been splitting along pro-Najaf and pro-Tehran/Qom lines. This will force Tehran to further rely on groups that distinguish themselves through violence.

A Different Kind of Intentionality

An important thread running through any assessment about escalation is intention and motivation. While the above three drivers all feature violence as a tool of political communication (vindicating part of the work of noted political scientist Thomas Schelling, who wrote about “the diplomacy of violence”), intention and motivation here relates to the desired kinetic impact after each escalation. More specifically, it warrants pondering; when do Iran and its militias want to kill Iraqis, Americans, and Coalition members, vs. when do they simply want to cause damage to send a signal that they cannot be deterred? This is where the data only permits one inference. The greater the number of rockets or mortars fired in each attack, the more devastating the weapon (per the diameter of the rocket, for instance), or the greater the number of attacks per month, the more likely that the escalation aims at taking lives, rather than only damaging infrastructure and/or sending a political message.

The Escalation Spiral – Numbers, Sources, and Methods

At present, there is no open-source consensus about the exact number of attacks by SMGs against U.S. positions or interests in Iraq. What constitutes an attack is also not clearly defined, nor does there appear to be an agreed-upon criterion for what locations can/should be counted, as well as what is an acceptable scope of time to study. In this absence of an official standard, news agencies have been reporting various numbers of attacks, but with no clear methodology. The same appears true for press reports carrying information from unnamed government sources which cite varying attack numbers over a period of months.

This assessment, and the following table, is an attempt to change that. The data collection period for the table was one year (May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020), hoping to account for all three aforementioned drivers of escalation above, rather than discriminating between them. The table is meant as a public compendium (the first of its kind) of attacks against the U.S. presence with at least one single-source for each instance (to be able to examine the sources for each attack, there is a downloadable table available). Previous analyses focused on select weapons systems like rockets, or were limited in scope due to the time of publication. In both instances, sourcing for each attack was not provided. Beneath the table, an interactive map is offered for further assessment of these reported attacks, as well as a simplified histogram.

Key Finding

Based on available open-source data, from May 1, 2019 to April 30, 2020, there have been at least 43 attacks using rockets and/or mortars on U.S. positions in Iraq by SMGs.

Note on Methodology

The table below compiles all “attacks” in Iraq attributable to, or more often, plausibly assumed to be conducted by SMGs, using only rockets and/or mortars that target U.S. forces, personnel, bases, or areas where Americans are co-located (note: this broad list includes attacks on oil installations and any associated infrastructure where American oil companies are). It omits any attack that is directly attributed to the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda (regardless of whom they target). The table further omits any attack by missile, drone, or improvised explosive device (IED), any attack that does not appear to emanate from Iraqi territory, as well as any attack that is not perceived as directed against the American presence in Iraq. It therefore excludes domestic attacks, such as on TV stations, for instance. Lastly, rather than count the number of individual munitions launched per attack, an attack is defined as any number of strikes within a one-day period against a specific location.

Hypothetically, if 10 rockets were fired at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in the Green Zone on February 3, that would count as one attack. But if on the same day, three mortars are also fired at the K-1 base, it would be marked as two separate attacks, requiring two separate entries, for February 3.

As with any data-collection effort, there may be gaps between the data represented below and available open-source material, a potential shortcoming for which the author is solely responsible.

Table of Reported Rocket and Mortar Attacks (May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020) (Click here for downloadable table with links)

Map of Reported Rocket and Mortar Attacks (May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020)

Graph of Reported Rocket and Mortar Attacks(May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020)

The above histogram represents the distribution of attacks against U.S. forces from May 1, 2019 to April 30, 2020. The X-axis represents time in months, and the Y-axis represents the number of reported (rocket and/or mortar) attacks.

The U.S. Response and Conundrum Ahead

The de-facto U.S. response has been to absorb much of the SMG-based escalation out of Iraq. But on select instances where the now apparent redline – the taking of an American life – was crossed, the U.S. military opted for kinetic force. Each time however, the U.S. chose to frame its response as highly targeted and strictly defensive. In the view of this author, such language could have the psychological effect of circumscribing the efficacy of the strike in the mind of the adversary.

Omitting the attack that killed Soleimani and Muhandis, the U.S. has used military force against SMGs two times during the scope of this study (May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020).

For purposes of comparison with attacks against the U.S. presence in Iraq, the table below aggregates reported instances where the U.S. military used kinetic force against SMGs, omitting any time where fire may have been returned for suppressive purposes at a lower level. As was the case with the previous table, there is a link to download the data and examine the sources used.

Table of Reported U.S. Use of Force Against SMGs in Iraq (May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020)
(Click here for downloadable table with links)

The Conundrum

As is apparent in the data above, Washington faces a conundrum. While the strike against Soleimani and Muhandis caught Iran and its proxies off-guard and led to a resetting of the pieces on the militia board, SMG-backed escalation continues. Additional attacks by such groups creates a problem for the U.S., as Washington – the greater and conventional military power here – struggles to deter Iran and SMGs from escalation at lower levels.

This deterrence challenge comes amid a turbulent time in Iraqi domestic politics and the U.S-Iraq relationship. Moreover, Washington’s current – and in the eyes of this author, needlessly high – bar for the use of military force has not induced Iran-backed SMGs towards restraint. Instead, coupled with signals that read as weakness, such as repeated news of base closures and transfers, as well as a divided Iraqi political class divorced from the needs of its people while under an oil-price and public health crisis, SMGs are incentivized to press their advantage through a cycle of violence.

All of this points to Washington needing a new modus operandi in Iraq to counter Iran-backed escalation. This plan of action cannot be built off of statements alone, be they about an indistinguishability in U.S. policy between escalation by an Iranian patron or Iraqi proxy, or about generically holding Iran accountable. It will have to be developed from action that weighs the merits of any future military response against a whole host of factors ranging from the needs of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran to the future and sustainability of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the broader Persian Gulf region.

In short, Washington will need a fundamentally new Iraq policy to change or reverse the trends in the data above.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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