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The rocket’s red glare over Baghdad’s Green Zone

  • Ibrahim Al Marashi
  • 23 May 2019

Last week both rockets and tweets were fired off during the US-Iranian standoff.

A Chinese Katyusha military rocket launcher, that has been converted to shoot incendiary rockets to start back-burning fires during major wildfires, is on display at a disaster and rescue expo at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre in Beijing on September 8, 2011. ( Getty Images )

On Sunday a Katyusha rocket was launched towards Baghdad’s Green Zone, the fortified area housing the US embassy, as well as Iraqi government buildings.

While this area has been the site of numerous insurgent mortar and rocket strikes in the past, the timing of this attack, as both the US and Iran raised tensions with exchanges of acerbic tweets on Sunday, raises questions as to whether Iran was behind the attack, or other actors, such as Daesh, seeking to provoke both sides into a war.

The current standoff is emblematic of a Middle Eastern cold war, where the means of engaging in aerial conflict range from massive B-52 bombers to small Yemeni-produced drones.

Both Katyushas and tweets have been fired off. The Katyusha was a rocket developed by the USSR during World War Two. The tweet is a means of communication developed in Silicon Valley that has become a tool of both coercive diplomacy and information warfare in the Middle East.  

The latest incident in the Iran-America showdown begs the question as to who was responsible, while simultaneously demonstrating the hybridity of conflict in the 21st century.

The Rocket’s journey from India to Russia 

The rocket evolved from the Chinese firecracker used by Indian military forces of Tipu Sultan as a weapon against rival British East India Company forces in the 18th  century. British forces then learned of this technology to use against the Americans in the war of 1812, hence the reference to the “rocket’s red glare” in the American national anthem by a witness of the war.

World War II lead to the development of weapons that are still in use to this day. The German V-2 rocket served as the design for the Soviet Scud missile, which gained global notoriety in 1991 when Iraq deployed these weapons against Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The war also compelled the Soviets to develop two weapons that were easy to manufacture and relatively cheap. The Kalashnikov AK-47, named after the year it was produced,1947, came too late to have an impact on the Soviet war with Germany but went on to be the most widely proliferated rifle. During the Cold War and after, it became a symbol of post-colonial revolutionaries, emblazoned on flags ranging from Mozambique to Hezbollah. 

The Katyusha (a diminutive Russian name meaning “little Kate”) was designed as an alternative to conventional artillery. Easily mounted on a truck, a Katyusha launcher could fire as many as 48 rockets in ten seconds, over distances of more than nine kilometres. Their mobility meant the launchers could fire the rockets and then leave before enemy guns could get a fix on them. The wailing sound of the rocket launched earned the Katyusha the name “Stalin’s Organ” by the German soldiers on the receiving end.

“Little Kate” comes to the Middle East

Like the AK-47 and the Scud, the Katyusha proliferated to the Middle East, becoming the weapon of choice for national militaries and insurgents alike.

In November 2003, in the early days of the Iraqi insurgency, Katyushas mounted on donkey-carts were launched into the Green Zone, demonstrating the easy mobility of this weapon platform.

The Lebanese Hezbollah, during its 2006 war with Israel, launched close to 4,000 of these rockets. It was Hamas’ weapon of choice during its 2009 war with Israel. In April 2016, Daesh fired Katyushas at the Turkish town of Kilis near the Syrian border.

No actor claimed responsibility for this weekend’s attack in the Green Zone, nor was anyone injured,  but unnamed Iraqi officials blamed the Iranian-supported Shia militia, Kataib Hizballah for the attack, despite the group's denial. However, the claim of the Shia militia’s responsibility should be met with some scepticism.

First, while the number of Shia militias are vast, and not all take orders from Iran, a group like Kataib Hizballah has relatively close connections with Tehran, and it is highly unlikely that the Islamic Republic would want to provide the US with a pretext for military retaliation.

Second, examining the versatility of the Katyusha weapon and past use indicates Daesh could be responsible, as it benefits more from a war between Iran and the US, the two powers that served in a de facto alliance to combat the terrorist group from 2014 to 2018.

A war between Iran and the US would wreak havoc in Iraq, only facilitating Daesh’s chances of regrouping there.

Third, one cannot rule out the possibility that the rocket launch was a false flag operation, seeking to implicate Iran and providing the rationale for a military conflict. 

From rockets to weaponised tweets

On Sunday, the same day of the rocket attack, Trump tweeted “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted in response that such “genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran’.” On Monday, Zarif dismissed Trump’s tweet, arguing the US president “hopes to achieve what Alexander [the Great], Genghis [Khan] & other aggressors failed to do.”

In a previous article on the American military deployment to the Gulf, I used a definition of the “postmodern as the culture of the easy-edit.” Zarif used Iran’s pre-modern history to repudiate Trump’s post-modern escalation of tensions.

In the modern age of diplomacy, nations threatened each other with mass media-delivered speeches, such as Ronald Reagan’s 1983 televised address that declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

A speechwriter had to draft the lengthy document, the National Association of Evangelicals had organised the venue, TV cameras had to come at a set time to witness Reagan utter his declaration, and the USSR had to monitor the American news media to receive that message.

Either Reagan or the speech writer must have invested a few hours watching Star Wars, based on their terminology. Nothing of this spectacle was easy.

For all we know, Trump was in his bed, having just eaten a cheeseburger, and intimidated Iran with a tweet within less than a minute.

The examination of the relatively easy firing of Katyusha, to the easy edits of a tweet, should serve as a cautionary tale. Unfortunately, this ease only makes an unintended conflict erupting that much easier.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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