By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Ahmed Rasheed
WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A malfunctioning drone in Iraq may have helped save America from being drawn deeper into a widening Middle East conflict.
The drone, launched before sunrise on Oct. 26 by an Iranian-backed militia at the Erbil air base, penetrated U.S. air defenses and crashed into the second floor of the American barracks around 5 a.m., according to two U.S. officials Troops housed were familiar with the matter.
However, the explosives-laden device failed to detonate and in the end only one soldier suffered a concussion from the impact, said the officials, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the attack. The U.S. was lucky, they added, because the drone could have caused a bloodbath if it had exploded.
According to the Pentagon, the incident was among at least 40 separate drone and missile attacks carried out on U.S. forces by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria over the past three weeks in response to American support for Israel in the Gaza war the two US officials.
The bombardment has caused only a few dozen minor injuries so far, as many of the missiles and disposable attack drones were intercepted by U.S. air defenses in Iraq and Syria, where a total of 3,400 American troops are stationed.
David Schenker, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, warned that while neither Iran and its allied groups nor the U.S. appeared to want a direct confrontation, the risks were increasing. The possibility of a major attack drawing America into a conflict is “a very real concern,” he said.
“I think they are targeting their attacks to harass rather than kill U.S. troops,” he said of Iraqi and Syrian militias. “But they can do a lot more.”
It is unclear how President Joe Biden would respond to a major attack that kills many Americans. As Biden has performed poorly in opinion polls ahead of next year’s presidential election, he has so far sought to limit the U.S. role in the conflict primarily to providing military aid to Israel.
The war broke out when gunmen from Hamas – the Iranian-funded militant group that rules the Palestinian enclave of Gaza – entered southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 240 hostages. Since then, Israel has bombed the coastal area relentlessly, killing more than 10,000 people, including many children.
Iran says it played no role in Hamas’ October 7 raid on Israel, although it has welcomed the attack.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Iraq – where most attacks on US forces have taken place – to urge Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani to crack down on militias operating there and avert escalation.
But Sudani has had little luck convincing the militia groups to stop their attack or persuading their backers in Iran to rein them in, according to five senior lawmakers in Sudan’s ruling coalition, a security adviser to the prime minister and a militia commander.
The prime minister and about 10 senior members of his government met with the commanders of about a dozen militia groups in Baghdad on Oct. 23 to urge the groups to stop their attacks on U.S. forces, said the seven people who were either present or were informed about the meeting.
However, the appeal largely fell on deaf ears as most commanders vowed to continue their attack until Israeli forces ended their siege and bombardment of the Gaza Strip, they added.
“No one – neither the prime minister nor anyone else – can defy our religious duty,” said Ali Turki, a Shiite lawmaker in the ruling coalition and commander of the powerful Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia.
Arif al-Hamami, another Shiite lawmaker, said the outlook for diplomacy was bleak: “I don’t think the prime minister has the power to stop the attacks as long as Israel commits atrocities in Gaza with American help.”
The Iraqi and Iranian governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the militia attacks and the risk of escalation.
Iraqi leader’s appeal to Iran
Iraq’s prime minister has limited control over the militias whose support he needed to come to power a year ago and who now form a powerful bloc in his ruling coalition. The militant groups that proliferated in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni government are trained and funded by Shiite power Iran.
For Sudani, it was a case of shuttle diplomacy.
Hours after meeting with Blinken on Sunday, the prime minister flew to Tehran to directly seek help from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials, according to a senior Iraqi politician close to the prime minister who was briefed on the visit.
Sudani called on Iranian officials to pressure the militias to stop their attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, fearing his politically and economically unstable country could face an escalation in which Americans would strike back against the militants. can hardly afford it, said the politician.
Officials told him that the militias in Iraq make their own decisions and that Tehran would not interfere in the situation there, the politician added.
Iran has described Israel’s retaliatory attack on Gaza as genocide and warned that the US will “not be spared from this fire” if it is not stopped. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Hezbollah movement – a group that sources say has acquired powerful Russian anti-ship missiles – has warned Washington that it would pay a heavy price in a regional war.
“LAUGH AT US IN TEHRAN”
Biden faces his own dilemmas as he receives constant reports of hostilities in the region. Among attacks outside Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, Iran-allied Houthi fighters have fired 15 drones and four cruise missiles off the coast of Yemen, shot down by U.S. Navy destroyers with a crew of hundreds of sailors, they say US military officials.
The current crisis has erupted after years of the US withdrawing military assets, including air defense, from the Middle East, as Washington tries to focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China. This realignment accelerated after Biden’s complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover there two years ago.
Biden’s response so far has been cautious; He ordered nightly strikes on two Iran-linked arms depots in Syria last month while they were unoccupied, but has not ordered any strikes in Iraq. On Wednesday, Biden followed up with a similar attack in Syria and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned: “We are pushing for any escalation.”
Biden has warned Iranian-backed groups across the region, including Lebanon’s major Hezbollah movement, against an expansion of the conflict, but he and other officials have refused to say explicitly what they would do in response.
Hoping a show of military force will deter any serious attack, the U.S. has deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups and even took the rare step over the weekend of announcing that an Ohio-class submarine had been deployed to the region.
Beyond deploying air defense systems such as the Patriot system and a high-altitude system, the U.S. military is also taking additional steps to protect its tens of thousands of troops in the region, officials said.
The measures included strengthening security at U.S. military bases in the region through increased patrols, access restrictions and increased intelligence gathering, they said.
Democrat Biden’s response to the crisis was not strong enough for many of his critics, including Republicans in Congress.
“They are laughing at us in Tehran,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Iran will continue to target Americans until President Biden is serious about imposing heavy costs on Iran.”
At a hearing in Austin on October 31, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham repeatedly asked whether the deaths of US soldiers would trigger a direct response against Iran. Austin disagreed, saying only that Iran should be “held accountable.”
“I wish you were clearer, because if one of these soldiers gets killed…” Graham said, pausing for effect.
For some, the recent attacks on U.S. troops are bringing back painful memories of the massive truck bomb in Beirut that destroyed a Marine barracks and killed 241 U.S. soldiers 40 years ago last month. The United States blames Hezbollah for the suicide attack, although the group has denied involvement.
David Madaras was a 22-year-old Marine when the shattering wave of the explosion hit him in 1983. As he remembers digging through the rubble where some of his friends were buried, he sees parallels to today that make him uneasy.
“We had rocket attacks and mortar attacks before we were hit by the big bomb,” he said. “Is history repeating itself?”
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Additional reporting by Amina Ismail and Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Pravin Char)