Three Coalition Troops at Iraqi Base Killed in Rocket Attack Bearing Hallmarks of Iran-Backed Militias

By Patrick Goodenough | March 11, 2020 | 8:02pm EDT
U.S. soldiers oversee training of Iraqis at Camp Taji in 2017. (Photo by Sabah Arar/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers oversee training of Iraqis at Camp Taji in 2017. (Photo by Sabah Arar/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – A rocket attack Wednesday night on an Iraqi military base housing coalition personnel cost the lives of three coalition personnel, the U.S. military confirmed. Details were not provided pending notification of next of kin, but military sources said two Americans and a British soldier were killed.

Twelve others were injured in the attack, according to the anti-ISIS Combined Joint Taskforce – Operation Inherent Resolve. It said about 18 Katyusha rockets had landed in Camp Taji, a base some 20 miles north of Baghdad, around 7:35 PM local time.

“The attack is under investigation by the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. Camp Taji is an Iraqi base that hosts Coalition personnel for training and advising missions.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a phone call with his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, discussed the attack “which resulted in U.S., UK, and other casualties,” the State Department said in a statement. They “underscored that those responsible for the attacks must be held accountable.”

The Iraq Security Media Cell, which falls under the prime minister’s office, posted photos of a small truck found near the Rashidiya area of north-eastern Baghdad, fitted with Katyusha launchers. Three unfired missiles were also found, it said.

The attack bore similarities to one targeting the K1 base near Kirkuk in late December. In that instance, a vehicle with Katyusha launchers was reportedly found abandoned nearby afterwards as well.

The K1 attack, blamed on an Iranian Qods Force-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), cost the life of an American contractor.

The around 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq are mostly involved in training Iraqi soldiers and police, now that ISIS insurgency has been largely shut down.

They have faced numerous threats – and several rocket attacks – since President Trump last January ordered an airstrike that killed of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. None of the post-airstrike attacks have resulted in U.S. fatalities until now.

The U.S. military has not publicly placed blame for the Taji attack. Katyusha rockets have been used by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in the past, including in attacks targeting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Trump has treated the killing of Americans as a deciding factor in mulling response to attacks linked to Iran.

He backed away from a threatened retaliation after Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. Navy drone last summer, citing potential Iranian casualties but also noting there had been no U.S. loss of life.

On the other hand, he ordered retaliatory strikes against KH bases after the Kirkuk attack which cost the life of the civilian contractor.

The U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad then came under attack from militiamen and their supporters. Days later came the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani and a top KH leader near Baghdad airport.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command in a statement early Thursday morning called the Taji attack “a very serious security challenge and hostile act.”

It said the prime minister had directed the armed forces chief to begin an immediate investigation, “to find out who carried out this dangerous and hostile act, and to prosecute, arrest, and present it to the judiciary, whatever the party.”

“We call on citizens to provide any information about the perpetrators of this act,” it said, adding that the military “vigorously address any targeting of military camps and bases.”

The Iraqi command also reaffirmed that coalition forces are in the country “with the approval of the Iraqi government and their mission is to train the Iraqi forces and fight ISIS, not any other party.”

It said “serious discussions” were underway in response to parliamentary calls for the U.S. troops to be withdrawn, and that actions such as Wednesday night’s attack “impede these efforts and complicate the situation in Iraq.”

'Rogue elements'

The Iran-backed militias are part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition established to help Baghdad push back ISIS jihadists.

In a posture statement before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said U.S. forces remain in Iraq “for one mission: the defeat of ISIS.”

That mission, however, was being hindered by “rogue elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces more beholden to Iran’s regime than [to the Iraqi government].”

“Some of these militias smuggle advanced weapons into Iraq from Iran, not to defend the country from ISIS, but to undermine existing security and threaten U.S. and coalition forces partnered with the [Iraqi government],” McKenzie said.

The general also referred in his statement to the deterrence of Iran in Iraq.

“Historically, Iran has never doubted the U.S. capability to respond, but frustrates our ability to do so by focusing on deniable, hard-to-attribute activities,” he said. “Targeting the Kata’ib Hezbollah group and Soleimani clearly demonstrated U.S. will. Our posture – the bases, forces, and activities that we undertake – maintains the other half of the deterrence equation: capability.”

The Taji attack came two days after two U.S. Marines, Capt. Moises Navas and Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo, were killed while accompanying Iraqi forces on a mission against ISIS insurgents in the north of the country.

“Their courage to confront the evil of ISIS, while advising Iraqi Security Forces, in close combat is a testament to the coalition’s steadfast commitment to achieve our goal to defeat ISIS permanently,” said Operation Inherent Resolve commander Lt. Gen. Pat White. “Moises and Diego made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedoms and protect our way of life; they will not be forgotten.”


 

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