image Photo: Reuters

US-Iran tensions soar over Iraq attack

Hostilities between the United States and Iran are escalating after the death of one American in the latest  attack on an Iraqi military base that bears all the hallmarks of having been launched by a Tehran proxy militia.

At least 10 rockets were fired at the Ain al-Asad air base outside of Baghdad that hosts US forces on Wednesday, which US officials told Reuters fits the profile of a strike by Iran-backed militia.

There were no reports of injuries among U.S. service personnel, but an American civilian contractor died of a heart attack while sheltering from the rockets.

The Pentagon said the rockets appeared to have been launched from multiple sites east of the Iraqi base, which was targeted last year by a ballistic missile attack directly from Iran.

A Baghdad Operations Command official said assault originated at a location about 8 km (5 miles) from the base in the westerly Anbar province, while an Iraqi security source and a government official speaking on condition of anonymity said the rockets were launched west of the nearby town of Baghdadi.

President Joe Biden said US officials are investigating the incident. “We’re identifying whose responsible and we’ll make judgments at that point,” Biden told reporters before a meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office.

Washington will not “shy away” from responding when necessary, said White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki, adding, “If we assess that further response is warranted, we will take action again in a manner and time of our choosing.” She went on to stress, “What we won’t do is make a hasty or ill-informed decision that further escalates the decision or plays into the hands of our adversaries.”

In a televised statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “the first thing we have to do is get to the bottom of it and find out to the best of our ability, who in fact is responsible. And then I think the President has been very clear that we will take appropriate action in a place and at the time of our choosing.”

“In the case of the earlier attacks the first thing we did was to make sure that we understood who is responsible, and that took some time; and then we worked very closely with our Iraqi partners to make that determination – and then to take clear action to demonstrate that these things could not go forward with impunity,” stated Secretary Blinken.

There were 3 separate missile rocket attacks in just over a week last month that targeted areas hosting American troops, diplomats or contractors.

Last Thursday, US forces carried out air strikes against facilities at a border control point in Syria used by Iranian-backed militias, including the Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada; after a 16 February strike killed a civilian contractor and injured a US service member.

In a later interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour, Blinken reiterated that “President Biden has made very clear – that his first and most important obligation is to protect the lives and safety of the – of Americans as well as our partners.”

When asked if the Wednesday attack “will that have any bearing on the attempt by the United States to get Iran back to the negotiating table when it comes to the Iran nuclear talks, Blinken responded that when the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018, “that it put Iran’s nuclear program in a box, Iran then started to break out from that box. And it is now in a position where it is closer to having the ability to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order, in a matter of months. The agreement had pushed it past a year. So, we have a real interest in trying to put Iran back into that box, and diplomacy is the way to do it.”

“We have made clear that the path of diplomacy is open. The European Union, which is one of the parties to the original agreement, invited all of the other parties – our European partners, Russia, China, and Iran, and us – to come to start to talk about the possible return to the nuclear agreement. We said yes; Iran said no. We’ll see what they do going forward. We’ve been clear that the path of diplomacy is open. The ball’s in Iran’s court to decide if it agrees,” he said.

When pressed as to whether the White House would consider the lifting of sanctions on Iran, the top American diplomat said, “We’ve been very clear that Iran has to come back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement; and if it does, we’ll do the same thing. And that would – that would involve, if they do it, some sanctions relief. But again, we’re a long ways from that. Unfortunately, Iran’s moving in the wrong direction. It continues to take steps that lift the various constraints of the agreement and is making its program more dangerous, not less dangerous. So, first and foremost, we want to see Iran come back into compliance with its obligations.”

State Department Spokesman Ned Price was asked about the latest attack during a press briefing on Wednesday. “We said this in the aftermath of the heinous attack on Erbil, I repeat it today: We won’t preview any particular or specific response. But we have demonstrated our resolve to take necessary and proportionate action in self-defense where appropriate. Whatever response we take, we will act with appropriate coordination with the Government of Iraq and of our – and with our coalition partners. We responded to recent attacks by Iran-backed militias on coalition U.S. forces in a manner that was calculated, proportionate, and fully covered by legal authorities. I think you will see the same hallmarks of any forthcoming responses.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack.

Despite a deterioration in security in some parts of the country, Pope Francis is due to begin a four-day visit to Iraq on Friday.