BAGHDAD—The sound of an explosion echoed through the Green Zone on Sunday night around 9:00 p.m., a reminder that this most secure part of the Iraqi capital is not, in fact, all that safe. The projectile appears to have been aimed at the United States embassy and, after the blast, embassy sirens went off, accompanied by repeated warnings blaring on loudspeakers instructing everyone to take immediate cover.
Within the hour the missile was reported to have been fired from the Amana bridge in Baghdad, missing its likely intended target and landing in an empty field near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with no casualties reported.
But for a brief and highly fraught moment alarms were going off in Washington, as well, where the much-publicized threat of Iranian “proxy” attacks on U.S. interests and personnel, and the American response positioning bombers and aircraft carriers, have conjured the specter of a new Middle Eastern war. One breaking news service breathlessly reported National Security Adviser John Bolton “just seen arriving at the White House amid rocket attack possibly aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.”
President Trump, meanwhile, tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” It is not clear if he was responding to the rocket, a Katyusha that might have been fired by any number of players in Iraq, or to threatening rhetoric by some Iranian officials, or both.
In any case, non-essential American personnel at the embassy had already been ordered to depart days earlier, many moving to posts in nearby countries to continue their work, and the U.S. embassy was already expecting a possible attack.
Our team of researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) landed in Baghdad on May 14, 2019, the day before the U.S. State Department issued the security alert to the “non-essentials” in Baghdad and Erbil, recommending they “depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible, avoid U.S. facilities within Iraq, monitor local media for updates, review personal security plans, remain aware of surroundings.”
An earlier security alert on May 12 advised all U.S. citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq and the requirement to remain vigilant. It recommended not traveling to Iraq, avoiding places known as U.S. citizen gathering points, keeping a low profile and, once again, being aware of your surroundings.
For those of use who have been visiting Iraq since 2006, this seems at once familiar and strange. Is the threat greater now than it was when the U.S. embassy was housed in Saddam’s former palace, and frequently underwent mortar fire? In those days none of the 5,000 embassy personnel were ordered home.
Despite President Trump saying he does not want war, does this action signal that something more than just mortar fire is about to come?
A former senior diplomat who served in Iraq following the 2003 invasion warned that if the U.S. or Israel had decided to launch air strikes on Iran, emptying the embassy might be a smart move. Iran could strike back at a close and convenient target—the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—and its ballistic missiles would be much more dangerous and difficult to withstand than mortars or Katyushas.
According to a senior official in the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) the rocket Sunday night was launched by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah. If it came on Iranian orders, the lone, ineffectual projectile may have been intended as a pin-prick provocation testing reactions without triggering full-fledged war. Other recent incidents—a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline; minor explosions on Saudi and other oil tankers—could fall into the same category.
Iraq, liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, has come under increasing Iranian influence ever since, and the Iran-backed militias played a key role fighting the so-called Islamic State after the national army virtually imploded in 2014. They have since become a major element in the Iraqi defense apparatus, even though some 5,000 U.S. military personnel are on the ground training and working with other elements of the Iraqi military.
The threat inside Iraq to U.S. personnel was revealed in part to Iraqi leaders during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit here on May 7.
The secretary is reported to have told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence detected that Iranian-backed militias moving missiles near bases housing American forces. Reuters reported that, according to a senior Iraqi official privy to the substance of the talks, Pompeo asked the Iraqi government to rein in the Shiite militias. Pompeo also expressed U.S. concern about these militias’ increased presence and influence in Iraq and warned that the U.S. would use force to tackle the security threats if necessary, without first consulting Baghdad.
Iraq's pro-Iranian military factions have long been a concern for U.S. personnel deployed in the region. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a radical Shiite militia in Iraq has, for example, long been cooperating with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group that was just declared by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.
The newly appointed IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, replied that his people are proud to be called terrorists by President Trump while also threatening the U.S. and Israel.
The Iraqi militia, Nujaba, also was added by the U.S. State Department to the U.S. list of global terrorist organizations on March 7 this year and its leader Akram Kaabi was sanctioned.
Nujaba has been demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq for quite some time. On May 12, Nujaba’s leaders proclaimed, "Confrontation with the United States will only stop once it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity,” while also stating that Iraqi resistance factions are ready to target U.S. interests in Iraq.
The Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which our source says was behind the Sunday night rocket attack, warned in February 2018 that it might engage in armed confrontation with US forces in Iraq at any moment. According to one Iraqi source, the Kataib Hezbollah is one of the militias that recently placed missiles near U.S. military bases.
The New York Times reported the the U.S. government was picking up an increase in conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq.
The New York Times also reported that American officials cited intelligence from aerial photographs of fully assembled missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf as cause for the U.S. administration to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran. This created concerns that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships or American commercial ships.
An Iraqi source confirmed on May 18 that ExxonMobil was evacuating its personnel of 30 to 50 employees from Basra, Iraq, and that the Bahrain embassy had also evacuated its employees from both Iraq and Iran. And U.S. embassies disseminated a warning from the Federal Aviation Agency that U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Persian Gulf risk being misidentified and by implication shot down amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
A potential conflict much larger than Iranian-backed Shia militias throwing mortar fire at the now fortress-like U.S. Embassy appears to be brewing amid credible intelligence coupled with heated anti-American rhetoric.
Yet, security threats to U.S. personnel serving in Iraq are nothing out of the ordinary and date back to the 2003 U.S. invasion. At the height of its activities, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had thousands of personnel, including contractors. They regularly suffered all sorts of threats from IED attacks when they ventured out on the road, RPG fire when they used helicopters, snipers when they were out in public view and intermittent but regular mortar fire that rained down on the temporary trailers that served as housing near the old Saddam palace where they worked. One mortar penetrated a window to the bathroom of the Deputy U.S. Ambassador’s office, situated inside the palace, destroying the brick wall around the window. It was later bricked up completely. The walkway from the trailers to the palace was mortared so often and so hard that it was nicknamed “death alley” by embassy personnel serving there.
While embassy personnel received danger and hardship pay, none were ordered home during those years, and danger was considered a part of the assignment. IED’s and mortars occasionally killed embassy personnel, but that did not stop the mission.
At present, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad is housed in a complex on a closed street that only badged officials can enter. The grounds are heavily walled walled and difficult to enter and inside, the buildings appear strongly built to withstand assault.
In Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also fell under the non-essential personnel evacuation order, a restaurant nearby was attacked by a car bomb in 2015, killing three non-Americans. But, while less robustly built, the consulate also is behind a concrete walled-off security space.
U.S. Embassy diplomatic personnel posted in both Baghdad and Erbil infrequently leave their fortresses and when they do travel around Iraq, their security requirements require using armored cars, wearing bullet proof vests and flack helmets and traveling with armed security guards, sometimes with chase and lead cars in a convoy.
Likewise, U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil are not family postings—diplomatic personnel serve for one or two years, leaving their family members behind.
The new embassy building, not far from the old one, was planned during the time of frequent attacks and was undoubtedly built to withstand mortar storms. Long and short-range ballistic missiles however constitute a whole different threat and it’s not publicly known if the new embassy has bomb-hardened resistant bunkers to protect embassy personnel.
Whether U.S. embassy non-essential personnel will return to post anytime soon remains to be seen, and given the dangers such personnel have faced in the past and the fortress in which they currently serve, why they were really ordered home is also still an unanswered question. With ships coming to the region and troops readying for potential travel, serious troubles may well be on the horizon.
While the saber rattling on both sides continues, Baghdad has also made clear that it doesn’t want to become the battlefield.