We're starting the New Year with a bang, apparently - Iraq appears to be going up in flames, and it's quite likely to spread all across the Middle East.
This current episode starts with a rocket attack (MLRS rocket artillery) on the Iraqi K1 Airbase on the 27/12/19, killing one US contractor, two Iraqi military and injuring several Iraqi and US soldiers. The US immediately blamed an Iraqi PMU, 'Khataib Hezbullah', for the attack and launched airstrikes against five installations that it characterised as 'KH bases'. The airstrikes killed 32 and injured 40+, among the dead and wounded both members of PMUs (which are now officially part of the Iraqi military) and Iraqi military regulars in the Missile Brigades. Following this attack hundreds of protesters attempted to enter the US Embassy in Baghdad (following on from mass-funerals held for the killed soldiers), overwhelming Iraqi security forces and pushing into the 'Green Zone'. In response the US military deployed around 100 marines to defend the embassy, using tear gas and less-lethal munitions to deter the protesters. The majority of them were eventually dispersed at the request of the Iraqi government and PMU leadership. On the 3/01/2020, a new attack was launched against Baghdad International Airport, ostensibly with the same 107mm rockets that'd been used previously. The rockets did little material damage to the airport but started fires, forcing it to be temporarily shut down, and destroyed the vehicle of Mohammed Redha Al-Jabri, a high-ranking official with the PMUs. Two others traveling with him were also killed, though their names have not yet been released - at the moment, one is thought to be Qassam Soleimani.
There's a lot to unpack here, so let's start from the beginning - the facts of the original K1 attack
The Iraqi K1 airbase is known to be a hub for US PMC (Private Military Companies such as Blackwater/Academi etc.) activity, though it's also manned by Iraqi and US regular military. The attack was a barrage of ~30 107mm KAYTUSHA-style rocket artillery and killed one US contracter, two Iraqi soldiers and injured several others. The US immediately placed the blame on the Khata'ib Hezbullah PMU (Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units are paramailitary groups that were raised to fight ISIS and were later officially folded into the Iraqi military) without providing any evidence or explanation as to why they would have targeted an Iraqi military installation rather than US forces directly. Iraqi Special Forces found what was thought to be the launch site, a makeshift MLRS rack welded into the bed of a truck, and took several photos:
There are some interesting points here:
1. Missiles do not appear to have been fired from here. Blowback would've blackened the entire enclosure, not just the actual racks.
2. Racks are at much too low an angle for rocket artillery and do not appear to be adjustable.
3. Four unfired missiles were left in the rack, likely to prove an 'Iranian link'.
3. The missiles, Iranian-made KATYUSHA clones, are of the very same batch that have been recovered from (US-backed and armed) SDF/YPG bunkers in Syria (http://archive.is/wip/r8Asr
So we have an indiscriminate attack that happens to kill a US contractor and what is likely a staged launch site meant to point the finger at Iran. The US immediately blames an Iraqi PMU called 'Khataib Hezbullah' on the basis that it regards Hezbullah as a terrorist group, even though KH is not officially affiliated with it and does not fall under its command. Hezbullah literally translates to 'Party/Group of God' and is not an uncommon name among fighting units in general. KH in particular has fully Iraqi leadership and reports directly into the military chain of command.
It's also worth noting that the name of the contractor killed has not been released, which is strange as the US media usually plays up deaths and the loss felt by their families to generate emotional support for a military response. It is possible that the contractor death was entirely fabricated.
Next - in response to the attack, the US launched airstrikes against 5 installations it claimed to be 'Khataib Hezbullah bases'
. First and foremost, KH is an Iraqi PMU and does not operate alone. The bases attacked were combined PMU/Military (PMUs are now officially part of the Iraqi military, so these attacks were directed in whole against the Iraqi military
), and there were significant casualties among both the PMUs and Missile Brigades. I'll leave this one at a few notes because much more pressing issues have come up.
1. None of the bases were within 300km or so of K1, meaning none of the people killed could've been directly involved in the initial attack.
2. All of the targets were either part of or in the region of the Al-Qaim border crossing, which has long been a point of contention. It's the only border checkpoint between Iraq and Syria currently open, and it was opened by the Iraqi government to incessant protests from the US and israel. Since its opening it's been regularly attacked by israeli assets operating out of US bases. Essentially, the US wants to be the only party able to control transit into and out of Syria.
Finally, there was a barrage of assumed-KATYUSHA missiles against the Damascus International Airport
. The airport itself wasn't significantly damaged, but it was temporarily shut down due to fires and it was initially reported that a car was struck in front of the airport, killing its occupants.
This was immediately treated as suspicious because the road in question is a highway with almost no traffic, meaning that the car struck was not parked and likely would've been traveling at 80+km/h, making a random strike unlikely. As it turned out, the initial missile barrage was used as a distraction to mask a targeted drone strike against that car, which killed at least two high-ranking Iraqi PMU officials as well as Qassam Soleimani, the Iranian head of the Al-Quds force and IRGC (which was only very recently confirmed).
As it stands, there are more questions that answers. It seems to me that the initial attack was staged in order to enact a pre-planned 'response', but several of the steps still do not make sense. This leads me to believe that parts are still in motion. Will post more later.