The Iranian missile attack on American bases in Iraq two days ago backfired in a big way. The two targets, at al Asad and Irbil, suffered little damage and no Americans were killed. For Iranian leaders seeking vengeance, the missile attack not only failed but failed in such a way that made Iran, and its leaders, even weaker than before.
Twelve missiles were aimed at the al Asad airbase, which is on the Euphrates River some 200 kilometers west of Baghdad in Anbar province. Al Asad airbase is where over a thousand American and NATO troops have been stationed since 2015. The other target was a base outside Irbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. Four of the sixteen missiles failed and the ones that did land near their targets did not kill anyone. There were two reasons for this. First, the Iranian missiles were not very reliable or accurate. This is not surprising because the Iranian weapons development efforts over the last few decades have emphasized propaganda over performance. This has long been standard for Iranian developed weapons and there are numerous examples of how the more high-tech their weapons are the less reliable they are. This is easy to hide when it comes to ballistic missiles since Iran rarely test-fires these missiles in a way that their accuracy can be verified. The few times their ballistic missiles have been used in combat they have not performed well.
Slower moving UAVs, using GPS flight control are another matter because that is reliable commercial tech. There is no such commercial tech for ballistic missile guidance systems and the Iranians show no evidence of having found a solution for this. The 16 missiles fired did appear to be aimed to kill. The two bases targeted were in isolated areas. If you missed the base you were likely to hit an uninhabited area.
Iran did not want to kill any Iraqis, especially not any Shia Iraqis. That was unlikely because al Asad is in a Sunni Arab majority area and Irbil is a largely Kurdish area. While no one was killed, there were some Iraqis wounded.
For the Iranians this was disappointing. Iranian leaders had vowed to get blood for blood over the death of Quds Force commander Soleimani, their most effective terrorism expert. Instead, they got embarrassed. The Iranian state-controlled media insisted there were dead Americans but Iranians know that the Americans cannot hide troop deaths and eventually the truth will spread in Iran via the Internet and cell phone.
The next question Iranians will ask is how this could happen. Their leaders had preached for decades that the Iranian missile program, into which so much money had gone, was a deterrent to anyone who threatened Iran. But now there were indications that this was all a lie. There was another reason for the missiles not killing anyone and that was the amount of warning the Americans had of the attack. Not just the kind of warning possible using a high-tech early warning system that issues an alert as the missiles are leaving the ground and not yet indicating where they are headed. In this case, the Americans appeared to receive their warning before the missiles were launched. All the personnel on those two bases were in their bomb shelters before the missiles hit. Some of the missiles did hit a few base facilities, like part of a runway and a few buildings. Looking at the pattern of the missiles strikes, it is obvious the bases were the target but that the missiles were not accurate enough to hit much. Even with that inaccuracy, one or two missiles fired at al Asad should have killed some Americans, unless they were already in their fortified bomb shelters. This is more embarrassment for Iranian leaders, who must now deal with the possibility that Americans had an agent in Iran with access to details of the retaliation plans. Or maybe it was a hack, or a leak in Iraq, where Iran apparently advised their Iraqi Shia allies to keep their people away from al Asad and Irbil.
The missile strike did not reassure Iranian leaders angry over the death of Soleimani but caused them more embarrassment and stress. This came at a bad time, as the attacks were supposed to coincide with the burial of Soleimani. That was delayed a day because of poor crowd control at the funeral, where dozens of mourners died when there was a stampede. This was embarrassing because most of the people who turned out to commemorate the death of Soleimani were coerced. Soleimani was not popular with most Iranians because he had long been the guy Iranian leaders called on to suppress widespread protests. This brutally used to be called on once or twice a decade. But now the demonstrations have been constant since late 2017 have had to be repressed, with great brutality, several times. A side effect of these protests is even more resistance to the several days a year when mandatory “Death To America” and “Destroy Israel” rallies are held to remind foreigners what Iran is all about. Soleimani was a general in the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) whose main job was to keep the religious dictatorship in power. Thus while Soleimani spent most of his time causing mayhem in other countries (as commander of Quds Force), he was called in when unruly Iranians had to be pacified. In Iran, it is no secret that Soleimani was a hardliner when it comes to domestic unrest. The coercion to round up large crowds to mourn Soleimani made a lot of Iranians even angrier because they were happy that he was dead.
Iranians and Iraqis are now questioning just how effective the Iranian military is. The Iranians have historically used a lot of subterfuge and illusion in support of their military operations, but now it appears subterfuge and illusion is a larger component of Iranian military power than anyone previously understood.
The Cause Of It All
On January 2nd the United States killed Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian most responsible for years of attacks on the Americans and the deaths of hundreds of American troops. While the current unrest in Iraq is mainly about corruption, there is also an anti-Iran undertone. The Iranians have taken advantage of the many corrupt government officials in Iraq and are often not very discreet about it. This is possible because of pro-Iran militias that Soleimani created after the 2003 Anglo-American invasion which ousted the Saddam Hussein government. Most Iraqis feared and hated Iran but because of a common religion (Shia Islam), there were a small percentage of Iraqis who supported Iran.
Those post-2003 militias were suppressed in 2008 by the new elected Iraqi government, a setback Soleimani never forgot. In 2014 Soleimani had another opportunity to rebuild those pro-Iran militias in order to halt the ISIL offensive that had quickly taken control of over a third of Iraq. Those militias were soon attacking those in Iraq who did not agree with Iran becoming a powerful political and military force inside Iraq. That meant the Shia militias Soleimani created also attacked Iraqi Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Shia that openly opposed Iranian control. Foreigners were also targets, especially Americans. When the Iranian religious dictatorship established itself in the 1980s it needed a formidable, but distant, threat to blame all of Iran’s problems on. America was the ideal official enemy. They were a true global superpower but they were far away. Unlike historical Iranian enemies like Romans, Turks, Byzantines and Mongols, the Americans were unlikely to invade and devastate Iran.
At the time it was popular in the Middle East to hate America, mainly because the U.S. supported Israel, the most successful democracy in the region. Since the 1980s official Iranian policy is to “hate America” and each year there are several days on which it is mandatory to get out in the streets shouting “Death To America”. Soon Israel was added. Most of the time this “Death to America” was mainly political theater. It was more than that because from the 1980s on there were a growing number of covert Iranian attacks that killed Americans. These attacks were rarely carried out by Iranians but rather by other Moslems, usually Arabs, who were recruited, trained and equipped to make these attacks by Iranians of the IRGC, which Soleimani joined soon after it was formed in 1979.
Soon after Soleimani joined the IRGC, Iraq unexpectedly attacked in an effort to seize some Iranian oil fields while Iran was distracted by the chaos of the recent revolution against the monarchy. For a guy in his 20s, Soleimani played an important role in the war, rapidly promoted because he got things done. Soon Soleimani was a division commander while still in his 20s. The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 with a stalemate. Iran considered this a defeat and veterans of the war like Soleimani never lost their dismay over that “defeat” and hatred of the Iraqi Arabs who inflicted it.
The Quds Force was also created during the 1980s as a special operations and intelligence collecting unit within the IRGC. By the 1990s Soleimani was spending more of his time with Quds and, in the late 1990s, he became its commander. This meant he reported directly to the senior clerics who ruled Iran. Soleimani proved very effective at organizing non-Iranian groups to attack American or Israeli targets overseas. Eventually Quds operatives identified as behind these attacks and soon Soleimani’s name became well known to Israeli and Western intelligence agencies. Soleimani tried to stay out of the news, as heads of covert operations agencies tend to do, but he was increasingly identified by the foreign press as the chief of the Iranian dirty tricks department and in 2017 the Iranian government decided to run with that and openly declared Soleimani a national hero. Soleimani let that go to his head and was soon boasting that he was untouchable as far as foreign enemies were concerned. At the same time, Soleimani was increasingly hated in Iran and Iraq. Soleimani was in charge of dealing with internal dissent in both countries and was soon recognized as responsible for killing thousands of Iranian and Iraqi opponents of the Iranian government. There was some public rejoicing after Soleimani’s death in Iraq but not in Iran, where such celebrations had to be held covertly. Soleimani may be dead but the homicidal enforcers he commanded are still around and they are angry about the American blowing their boss to pieces.
Meanwhile Iranian Quds “advisors” rely on corrupt Iraqi officials to survive and thrive. For this reason, one thing the Iraqi protestors and the government could agree on was how important it was to retain American troops in Iraq. This would discourage Iran from trying to take over the government by force. Iran already has a lot of influence in the Iraqi government. For example, at the end of October 2019, Soleimani flew to Baghdad and presided over a meeting of senior Iraqi officials on how to deal with the growing anti-government violence. Soleimani was there to show Iraqi officials how Iran had suppressed similar mass protests back home.
Soleimani did not reveal any details to the media. That would have been interesting because the situation in Iran is quite different. For example, Iraq is a democracy while Iran is a religious dictatorship pretending to be a democracy. Moreover, Iran has a “royal guard” force in the IRGC, which Quds is a part of. While Quds specializes in disrupting or controlling foreign governments, most of the IRGC personnel exist to prevent the Iranian armed forces or the Iranian people from overthrowing the religious dictatorship. Iraq is a democracy and there is nothing similar to the IRGC. If there were such a force, it would be very unpopular because it would remind many Iraqi Shia of the Saddam Hussein era Republican Guard. This was a carefully recruited and well-paid force of Sunni Arab troops whose primary job was to keep the majority 80 percent who are not Sunni Arab from taking control. Quds has been trying to create an Iraqi IRGC in the form of pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias. That has backfired as many Iraqis in the Iran-backed PMF brigades have changed their minds about supporting Iran. A growing number of Iraqis are convinced that most of the protestors killed were murdered by Iranians or pro-Iranian PMF members. Time and again the killings are carried out either by snipers (which Quds is a big fan of) or groups of uniformed masked gunmen firing on protestors. PMF members wear military uniforms while the masks and killing demonstrators are a Quds thing.
Soleimani tended to offer the same advice in both Lebanon and Iraq; if persuasion or threats don’t work, anonymously open fire and keep shooting, especially at known or suspected leaders, until the unrest subsides. That often works in a police state, which Iran is, but not so much in democracies, which Iraq and Lebanon are. You can see why Iran opposes true democracy. Technically Iran is a democracy but there is a group of senior clerics who can veto anything the Iranian parliament tries to do and even blocks “unsuitable” Iranians seeking to run for office.
In late 2017 Soleimani was proclaimed (via Iranian TV) the best Iranian armed forces commander during 2017. Soleimani has been repeatedly praised as responsible for victories in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Soleimani was portrayed as some sort of master of mayhem and an ideal Iranian hero. The United States and many other nations consider Soleimani an international terrorist. To that end, the head of the CIA recently (before the missile attack) warned that Soleimani and his Quds Force associates would be held personally responsible if Iran backed forces in Iraq or Syria attacked American troops. Soleimani had recently said that would happen if American troops did not leave Iraq and Syria. Most Iraqis want the Americans to stay until the Iranian threat is diminished.
Soleimani has also been active in foreign relations. In late 2015 Soleimani made a second visit to Moscow. This came after Iran and Russia insisting that a July visit by Soleimani to Moscow did not happen. During the July trip, Soleimani was said to have met with Russian defense officials and left after two days. Since 2007 Soleimani has been under numerous sanctions, including ones that are not being lifted by the July 14th Iranian peace deal. Soleimani was not supposed to be able to travel to Russia and Russia knows it. But Russia and Iran simply deny the visits actually happened, the same way Iran denies that Soleimani has spent time in Iraq supervising the creation and use of pro-Iran Shia militias.
Iranian leaders already miss Soleimani, who was their most effective covert warrior against all enemies foreign and domestic. The fact that Soleimani played a major rule in crushing (for the moment) the recent public demonstrations against the Iranian government has not been forgotten. The protestors are still around and are now encouraged to hit the streets again, earlier than they normally would. Iranian leaders are threatening reprisals against America but they also know that Soleimani was their most effective commander for carrying out such missions. Soleimani’t deft touch is especially needed now that the IRGC and Quds are widely considered as “international terrorist organizations” and first on the list of the usual suspects. The Iranians now realize that the Americans are as deadly as the Israelis in paying these blood debts. The Americans have already openly declared that any Iranian attacks against Americans would get a quick and deadly response. No one is off-limits. With Soleimani gone the senior clerics who rule (or misrule) in Iran have to consider that further violence could get very personal for them. The Americans are relentless and patient. They got bin Laden, al Baghdadi, Soleimani and dozens of less senior terrorist leaders. Soleimani was considered a key component of the IRGC effort to protect their bosses from attack. The loss of Soleimani puts the Iranian leadership in a very bad position and most people in the Middle East are enjoying that.
Israel believes Iran is moving short-range (under 1,000 kilometers) ballistic missiles into Iraq and concealing them in areas where pro-Iran militias are dominant. These would be used in the event of a war with Israel, along with rockets and missiles already in Lebanon and Gaza. This could cause problems with Iraq, especially since a retired IRGC general casually admitted, in a recent media interview, that Iran controlled the many rockets and missiles stored in southern Lebanon for potential use against Israel. An official denial was issued because Iran has always denied having direct control over Hezbollah, the Shia militia that has controlled southern Lebanon for decades. It is no secret that Iran controls Hezbollah but officially that is not the case.
Iran–backed Shia rebels in Yemen recently threatened to use their Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles against Israel. These rebels took credit for the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities. Iran supported this claim but the physical evidence clearly showed that the attack came from Iran and, inside Iran, it is taken for granted that this was an Iranian, not a Yemeni rebel attack. The Yemeni rebels are not enthusiastic about getting credit for any direct attack on Israel because of the Israeli reputation for retribution.
In mid-November a massive number of leaked Iranian intelligence files from 2014-15 detailed how much Iran had infiltrated the Iraqi government and Security forces. Names were named, both Iraqi and Iranian. Many of the names, especially the Iranian IRGC commanders and religious leaders, are still around and still actively interfering inside Iraq. This was inflammatory material in Iran and Iraq, as both countries are undergoing nationwide protests against corruption and the misbehavior of the IRGC and Iran’s religious dictatorship. For a lot of Iraqis and Iranians, the leaked documents just confirmed what was already suspected, but that both Iranian and Iraqi governments denied.
The Iranian documents consisted of 700 pages of Iranian intelligence reports detailing Iranian efforts in 2014 and 2015 to gain control over senior Iraqi officials and obtain information on American operations to defeat ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq. The leaked reports named names and detailed how the Iranian approach was to recruit Shia, as well as Sunni and Kurdish, officials to either have the Iraqi government assist Iranian operations in Syria or simply keep Iraq subordinate to Iranian interests. To make this happen Iran recruited some Iraqis who worked for the American CIA. Iran used appeals to “protect Iraqi Shia”, bribes and threats. Not a lot of money was spent, if only because the most vulnerable Iraqi officials were often the most corrupt and were already getting rich by plundering the Iraqi government budget as well as state-owned or controlled industries. Kurdish and Sunni officials were recruited with offers to help protect Kurdish and Sunni Iraqis, as well as other favors for the officials involved. A lot of this was no secret and it was widely known which Iraqi Shia, Kurdish and Sunni officials seemed to be on good terms with Iran. It was assumed that this was done in return for some Iranian favors and the leaked messages detailed what those relationships entailed. The Iranian documents appeared after Iraqi had been suffering from over two months of anti-corruption protests, mainly by Iraqi Shia who were the most vulnerable and abused victims. Iranian intelligence efforts in Iraq showed little concern for most Iraqi Shia who had already figured this out. Now they had evidence of who agreed to work for the Iranians, usually at the expense of most Iraqi Shia. This caused the protests to turn even more anti-Iran than they already were.That played a role in the senior Iraqi Shia clergy openly turning against Iran. Now Iran has a more difficult time obtaining cooperation from the Iraqi government and Iraqis in general.
While these leaked documents concentrated in Iran, other neighbors of Iran could sympathize with Iraq because all had felt similar pressure from Iraq to bend the knee to the ancient local superpower.
The anti-corruption demonstrations have, since October 1st, left nearly 500 dead and nearly 20,000 injured. The protest is not just about corruption but also Iranian efforts to control Iraq and exploit the corruption to do so. Protestors consider the current government crippled by politicians who are pro-Iran or have been bribed to do what Iran wants. Both the Iraqi and Iranian governments were caught by surprise at the size, ferocity and persistence of the protests. The death of Soleimani was welcomed by many of these protestors because they hold Soleimani responsible for the “shoot-to-kill” policy the Iraqi government, and pro-Iran PMF militias have adopted against the protestors.
January 8, 2020: Iran launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles, from three locations in Iran, at two bases used by American troops in Iraq. The attack took place before dawn. Later in the day, actually, after midnight, two more small rockets were fired into the Green Zone, the well-protected area where foreign embassies and key government offices are located. One rocket landed about a hundred meters from the American embassy and the embassy was apparently the target. These rockets are unguided and there is lots of open space in the Green Zone. This 10 square kilometer (four square mile) sanctuary in downtown Iraq was long a sanctuary for Americans and senior Iraqis. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone and the way it disrupted major traffic patterns, eliminated after the Americans left. But rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists, both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich. So the Green Zone lives on, under Iraqi management. Since 2010 there have been occasional rockets or mortar shells fired into the Green Zone. It is a large target, with a lot of open space, so there are rarely casualties. This rocket was fired from areas controlled by an Iran-backed militia. Iran officially condemned the rocket attack although it was later announced that fragments of the rocket had been collected and it was Iranian made and commonly used by groups Iran supports throughout the region. That’s a proxy war. Thus the Kataeb Hezbollah and other pro-Iran PMF militias have not finished with their efforts to kill Americans to avenge their patron Soleimani.
January 5, 2020: The U.S. announced that its forces in Iraq would temporarily shift from supporting the fight against ISIL remnants active in Iraq to reinforce the security of bases where American troops live. This will continue until the current Iran threat is over. Iraqi anti-ISIL operations continued with the next one taking place in the north on the 9th. The Iraqi efforts will be less frequent and effective without American participation, especially air support.
In Baghdad, pro-Iran members of parliament have held a meeting to see if they could pass a law ordering American troops out of Iraq. Kurdish and Sunni Arab MPs refused to attend as did many Shia Arab MPs. Parliament did pass a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to expel all foreign troops from Iraq. The resolution was not only non-binding, but the temporary (until a permanent one can be agreed on) prime minister does not have the authority to approve such a “expel foreign troops” law. Moreover, the resolution had no timetable for the expulsion of much in the way of details at all. All this resolution did was let Iran know that some of its Iraqi allies were still active.
January 4, 2020: The United States and other NATO nations suspended their training activities with Iraqi security forces. This is to reduce the exposure of Western troops and civilian contractors to Iranian attacks. The U.S. has also increased security around bases where Americans are stationed. There were two rockets fired at bases in Baghdad and Balad that contained American troops. Both rockets missed. These attacks are nothing new as there have been 13 of them since November. Pro-Iran Iraqi militias are believed responsible for most or all of these attacks.
January 2, 2020: American UAVs used missiles to kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the long-time commander of the IRGC Quds Force. Also killed were nine Iraqi and Iranian associates of Soleimani. This included the head of the Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah which is trying to emulate the older Lebanese Hezbollah. It was later revealed that American intelligence believed Soleimani had ordered preparations for major attacks on American targets.
January 1, 2020: Iran and Kataeb Hezbollah warned Americans in Iraqi that they were not welcome and not safe as long as they remained in Iraq.
In the north, near the Turkish border, two Turkish troops were killed during a clash with PKK Kurdish separatists. Turkey was conducting a multiday air and ground operation in northern Iraq to find and destroy PKK facilities in the area.
December 31, 2019: In Baghdad, pro-Iranian demonstrators bullied their way past Iraqi security and into the normally very safe Green Zone and smashed their way through the gates of the American embassy compound. The Americans complained to the Iraqis about the lack of security provided by Iraqi troops and police protecting the Green Zone. Iraqi government officials admitted the obvious, the “demonstrators” were unarmed Pro-Iran Kataeb Hezbollah PMF militiamen. With no assurance of help from the Iraqi government the U.S. quickly flew in a hundred more marines and ordered them to open fire if the PMF men attempted to take the embassy itself. There would be more reinforcements as needed and air support. The Iraqi government was told about this as well and warned to back off unless they were willing to defend the embassy. At that point, the PMF men inside the compound were ordered to withdraw.
December 29, 2019: The U.S. carried out five airstrikes against Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah bases in Iraq and Syria, leaving at least 25 dead.
December 28, 2019: In the north (Kirkuk province), a rocket attack on the K1 base killed an American contractor and wounded American and Iraqi troops. At least 30 rockets were fired and pro-Iran Kataeb Hezbollah militia was believed responsible.
December 10, 2019: Commercial satellite photos clearly show Iran building tunnels in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This border crossing is vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. The new tunnels are apparently large enough for trucks to drive into, for refuge from airstrikes as well as for getting across the border unseen. Israel has bombed this area many times and continues doing so. Because of that Iran is constructing the tunnels to better conceal the cargo trucked in from Iran and moved into Syria via this crossing. The tunnels are near the new military base Iran is building on the Syrian side of the border. The base is nearly complete despite several Israeli airstrikes. Once the base is completed the Israeli airstrikes will intensify in an effort to obliterate the base. Probably the same for the tunnels. Israel has had to deal with cross-border tunnels before, on its Lebanon and Gaza borders.
December 7, 2019: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were four or five deaths, all of them pro-Iran militiamen.
December 4, 2019: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq.
December 3, 2019: Iraq remains firmly entrenched in the three nations of the 2019 GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism, The top ten consists of Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. In the last year worldwide terrorism deaths declined 15 percent to 15,952. This decline is, so far, a four year trend and Iraq is one of the areas where there have been fewer deaths in the last few years.
November 30, 2019: Iranian general Soleimani flew to Iraq and presided over a meeting of senior Iraqi officials on how to deal with the growing violence and the recent resignation of the pro-Iran prime minister. Soleimani had been in Iraq a month ago to “advise” but that did not seem to have the desired impact.