US cedes base to Iraqi forces in area known to be hotbed for Iran-backed militias
The US military said on Tuesday it had handed over a strategic outpost near the Iraqi-Syrian border to Iraqi forces in an area known to harbor an Iran-backed militia responsible for more than a dozen rocket attacks targeting coalition troops.
Two experts who spoke to Military Times fear the base nestled near a key border area could fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed group – confirming what national security experts have warned that the target from Tehran from a land route to the Mediterranean Sea for the movement of weapons, proxies and illicit goods.
Officials of Operation Inherent Resolve – the US-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria – say the transfer of the al-Qaim base is aimed at consolidating coalition forces to following successful operations against ISIS militants.
“Today marks a historic moment for the operation of Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve and our Iraqi security partners,” Brig. General Vincent Barker, IRO’s sustainment director, said in a statement.
“The Al Qaim base served as a critical place in the fight against Daesh. First, when Iraqi security forces liberated the Al Qaim region from an evil presence, and then as a valuable base during the Battle of Baghouz, the last physical territory held by ISIS. Today’s transfer is made possible by the efforts and successes of our ISF partners, ”Barker said in the statement.
But the base transfer follows two recent rocket attacks targeting an Iraqi base housing coalition troops known as Camp Taji. A rocket attack on March 11 killed two American soldiers and one British serviceman. On March 14, a barrage of 107 mm rockets injured several American soldiers.
Rocket attacks since October 2019 have precipitated a deadly escalation between an Iran-backed group known as Kataib Hezbollah and US forces. A rocket attack that killed an American contractor and injured several American soldiers in Kirkuk in December 2019 almost led to war with Iran.
Charles Lister, senior researcher and director of the counterterrorism and extremism program at the Middle East Institute, tweeted on Tuesday that Kataib Hezbollah could take over the base after leaving the United States.
“Who wants to bet that in 6 months, the militias supported by #Iran will be the” ISF ” [Iraq security forces] at the helm of the al-Qaim base? », List tweeted.
“# IRGC-linked [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] the militias already have a significant presence around al-Qaim, not to mention control across the border, in the al-Bukamal / Imam Ali base in #Syria, etc. Lister tweeted.
Kataib Hezbollah has a large network in Iraq’s Anbar province, according to Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the Washington Institute and expert in Iran.
The Shiite militant group is known to operate in al-Qaim, Abu Kamal and along Highway 1 through Anbar province, Smyth told the Military Times.
Smyth told the Military Times he was sure the base would fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed group, warning that the militants already had “de facto” control. “Once we get out, they’ll be there,” Smyth said.
Lister told the Military Times that Kataib Hezbollah controls the Syrian border post near al-Qaim.
“They are the key to PMU [popular mobilization unit] player around al-Qaim, arguably influencing the 8th division of the Iraqi army, which is technically based in al-Qaim, ”Lister said.
After the December 27 rocket attack on Kirkuk, US warplanes launched retaliatory strikes against a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters in al-Qaim.
The airstrikes sparked an escalation that led to a standoff at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a decapitation strike against Force Commander Quds Qassem Soleimani, and a ballistic missile strike from Iran targeting troops of the coalition hosted in two Iraqi bases.
The US Central Command has struggled to protect and respond to the rocket attacks that continue unabated despite numerous threats from US officials to Tehran and its proxies.
The coalition has been criticized for failing to deploy counter-rockets, artillery and mortars or C-RAM systems to Iraqi bases, especially Camp Taji, which has been the target of multiple rocket attacks.
C-RAM systems can be used to defend bases against indirect fire and mortars, but Marine General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the commanding officer of CENTCOM, explained that they are often used to strengthen the defense of Patriot systems. .
Patriot missile batteries are moving to Iraq to help counter a possible Iranian ballistic missile strike.
Camp Taji, the Iraqi base hit by 18 rockets on March 11, did not have a C-RAM system. McKenzie told reporters that CENTCOM must “ruthlessly prioritize” where it places defensive equipment because there are more troops than systems and resources available to protect everyone.
McKenzie said it was an “unpleasant fact” but that the United States “cannot have C-RAM everywhere.” The CENTCOM commander also noted that C-RAM is “not a panacea”.
On March 13, McKenzie said the Iranian threat “remains very high” after the latest rocket attack on coalition forces involving an Iranian-backed Shia militia.
The IRO said coalition troops would leave al-Qaim in the coming days after the transfer of equipment to Iraqi forces.
The IRO detailed in a statement that it was handing over approximately $ 900,000 in equipment to Iraqi forces, including container housing units, water tanks, generators, tents and barriers.
The coalition said it will continue to consolidate its forces from smaller bases across Iraq throughout 2020.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for the Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.