Ten rockets struck a coalition air base in Iraq on Wednesday that was home to US and Iraqi troops.
Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesperson for the coalition charged with combatting ISIS (Daesh) and terrorism, said the targets fell on Al Asad Air Base at around 7 am. This was the same base targeted by retaliatory rocket fire after the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
While there were no direct casualties, one American contractor died of a heart attack while sheltering in the base. An Iraqi military official believes the rockets were launched from outside western Baghdad, confirmed by the discovery of trucks used as launchers by Iraqi forces.
No one has taken credit for the attack, effectively the second of its kind in one month.
On February 16, rockets were also fired on a northern base home to US soldiers, killing one civilian contractor and injuring one US serviceman. That attack was claimed by a Shia militia group.
The February 16 strike used Iranian-made Arash-4 long range rockets, according to Kataib Hezbollah, the largest pro-Iran militia in the country. The Arash rockets are loosely based on the Soviet 122 mm Grad rocket, commonly fired off truck-mounted rail systems.
Photos of rocket remains used in the most recent missile strike show common features that indicate a high likelihood the same Iranian rockets were used. According to Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO), the Arash-4 operates with a range of 40 kilometers.
The use of Iranian rockets, coupled with the timing of the attack comes as a likely response to US moves in the region, specifically after US President Joe Biden ordered an air strike on a Shia militia base in Syria. The Pentagon reported that the US airstrikes were meant to discourage escalation.
No matter what, the use of longer-range rockets, together with the early-morning timing of this latest attack on Al Asad, would seem to suggest that Iranian-backed groups are looking to send a message to the United States about the actual size and scope of their capabilities, as well as their resolve. After the air strikes on the militia base in Syria last week, the Pentagon said the goal had been to carry them out in a way specifically intended to try to avoid further escalation.
The use of the Arash-4 suggests a shift in the pace of the conflict. The rocket used is far more capable than the normally used Iranian 107mm Fadjr-1, a weapon of choice for Iranian militias in Iraq for years. The Fadjr-1 itself is a clone of a very popular Chinese missile design popularised in the 1960s, while remaining in active use. Unlike the newer Arash-4’s 40 km range, the Fadjr-1 has a maximum range of just 8.3 kilometers. The use of Arash-4 rockets marks a serious escalation in firepower and lethal intent.
A launcher used to fire the 10 rockets was later found to be hidden on a civilian truck. This is a common tactic used by Iranian-militias. Pictures circulating on twitter show a WiFi hotspot, and a small camera, suggesting the strike may have been remotely recorded.
The size and volume of firepower, coupled with the complex setup used, suggest a level of military expertise commonly found in Iranian-backed militias.
"One of the things we were certainly hoping to achieve as a result of that strike was to deter future attacks by militia groups on our people, our facilities and our Iraqi partners, and we certainly hope that it has that effect," said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby during a press conference yesterday.
"There hasn't been – since the – the strike last week, there hasn't been any attacks by militia groups on our people and we – we hope that that remains the case."
“You can’t act with impunity," President Biden told journalists last week after they questioned the intent behind US airstrikes in Syria."
This comes amid a renewed push by the Biden administration to continue full engagement with Iran, with an eye to salvaging the international nuclear deal seeking to shape Iran’s nuclear future.
The Biden administration finds the actions of Iranian proxies harmful to talks, while proxy militia actions are perceived as a way of reinforcing Iran’s bargaining hand.
But even Iran’s proxies may be beyond their direct control. General Frank McKenzie, US Central Command Chief noted that Iran’s proxies are “generally responsive” to Iran, but also emphasised “not every entity at every level” does as its instructed.
Biden faces ramping criticism from Republicans and Democratic members of his own party, over whether the recent US air strike in Syria is legal. The 10 rockets that exploded over the US coalition base come less than a week after the US airstrike in Syria, that sought to destroy militia capabilities for attacking US forces, in what the US Department of Defence described a “proportionate military response”.
The Syria air strike effectively constituted Biden’s first major military order, which reportedly killed one Iranian militia fighter, and injured two others.
In spite of the US effort to keep the conflict from escalating, the use of 122mm ‘Grad’ rockets indicate a serious commitment to showing off an unaffected capacity to strike at US forces with impunity.