At least three rockets hit the US embassy in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Although no group claimed responsibility so far, fingers are pointed at Iran-backed armed groups.
Rocket attacks on the American embassy in Iraqi capital Baghdad on Sunday have again highlighted the continuing tensions between Washington and Tehran in the turbulent Middle East, where Iran uses its Shiite-dominated proxy groups to limit the reach of the US and its allies.
According to various sources, three rockets out of five landed in the US embassy, hitting the diplomatic post’s dining facility, and wounding an unspecified individual. It’s the first reported hit to the embassy facilities.
While the US State Department condemned the act in strong terms, it did not directly blame Iran and its proxies. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks.
But Washington still fingered Iran.
"The security situation remains tense and Iranian-backed armed groups remain a threat. So, we remain vigilant," said a spokesman for the State Department.
US personnel and diplomatic posts in Iraq have been increasingly targeted by Iran-backed groups since September, when tensions between the two archenemies began escalating.
Eventually, the US assassinated Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, who was overseeing Tehran’s military operations across the Middle East, on January 3.
Since then, Iran has been trying to realign its political game, which is mostly based on the country’s capacity to wage proxy warfare against its enemies, the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, using different Shia groups from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Kataeb al Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.
But powerful protests against Iran’s intervention across the Middle East from Lebanon to Iraq have also continued since the assassination of Soleimani, indicating the fragility of Tehran’s proxy warfare strategy.
The recent rocket attacks could be a sign of the beginning of the Iranian proxy warfare against the US, forcing Washington to reconsider its presence in Iraq, a country which appears to be stuck between Iran, a regional power, and the US, a super power and an invading force.
“While condemning this illegal act, we instructed our security forces to arrest the attackers and bring them to justice,” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said.
A month before the recent rocket attacks, Kataeb al Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi Shia group, hit a military base in Kirkuk, hosting American troops, killing an American contractor.
In response, the US launched air strikes to the Iranian proxy’s bases across Iraq, killing at least 25 members of the group in late December. Then, the group’s supporters, allegedly led by Soleimani, retaliated by briefly putting the US embassy in Baghdad under siege.
During the siege, which was a reminder of the infamous “hostage crisis” of 1979, when Iranian students following the Revolution seized the US embassy in Tehran, taking the country’s diplomatic staff hostage for 444 days. The hostage crisis effectively broke up relations between the two countries.
This time the siege did not last long, making observers believe that Washington and Tehran decided to deescalate the conflict.
Days later, US President Donald Trump ordered strikes to kill Soleimani on the outskirts of Baghdad’s international airport.
After the strike, which meant to downsize Iran’s Middle East operations, many experts and state officials feared that tensions between the two countries could get out of control.
But Iran chose to play a strategic game, not directly facing the US military might, hitting two Iraqi bases in Erbil and Baghdad. The attacks did not kill any US personnel, calming Trump and his allies to deescalate the tensions.
Iran’s political game
After the Soleimani assassination, the Iraqi parliament, under Iranian pressure passed a resolution, urging Washington to pull out its troops.
Moqtada al Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric, who has been a leading force behind the protests, also appeared to change his stance, ordering his supporters not to participate in the anti-government demonstrations anymore. His party’s parliamentary group also supported the Iraqi resolution against the US presence.
Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, also threatened to end the US military presence in the tiny country, where a sizeable Shia population lives.
In 1983, both the US Embassy and the country’s peacekeepers in Beirut were allegedly targeted by Hezbollah, killing more than 250 Americans in total.