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Rocket attack affecting International Zone in central Baghdad as GoI stresses intent to respond to unnamed actors

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At approximately 02:45 on 18 June, at least four Katyusha rockets impacted in the International Zone in central Baghdad. Social media sources reported the employment of six rockets. Most international reporting vaguely cited impacts near the US Embassy. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi confirmed multiple impacts near the Monument to the Unknown Soldier at Celebrations Square. Limited reporting cited an impact near FOB Union III (Al-Tawheed Al-Thalith), the main joint headquarters for CF and ISF for the counter-IS campaign. Further clarification for specific impact locations may not surface due to established operational security practices. No casualties or significant damage were reported. Indirect fire sirens were activated as part of routine responses.

According to the Security Media Cell, the point of origin was found in the Camp Rashid area, approximately 5km southeast of the International Zone. ISF recovered a rocket launcher platform with six tubes that were apparently empty, and six initiators. The Security Media Cell did not specify the clearance of two remaining rockets or display associated images, supporting indicators that six rockets may have been fired during this attack.

Rocket launcher recovered following attack affecting International Zone, 18 June 2020

In a tweet, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi denounced what he described as an attack against the Monument to the Unknown Soldier and unacceptable efforts to undermine the stability of Iraq. “I will not tolerate rogue groups hijacking our homeland, to create chaos and fined excuses to maintain their narrow interests.” The GoI refrained from addressing the likely intended targets for the attack and the circumstances surrounding US-Iran tensions, instead focusing on the symbolic monument. The US government also characteristically refrained from discussing this attack.

The 16 June video did not the depict any form of attack against the C-130 on 8 June, which was classified as an accidental crash by CF. The video depicted what was apparently surveillance footage captured by a UAV over Camp Taji, as well as rockets firing during the mentioned attacks. The video interestingly began with historic footage of IED attacks against US military forces. Although not relevant to current activity, it represents a form of posturing potentially demonstrating intent to renew IED activity against US and allied forces in the future. For the time being, IED activity has been limited to sporadic attacks against US-contracted logistics convoys, most of which involve Iraqi companies.

At least six indirect fire attacks targeted US interests in and around Baghdad between 8-18 June, representing the most significant spike since early 2020. This includes two attacks directed against a site hosting US military and diplomatic personnel near Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) on 8 June and 16 June, two attacks directed against Camp Taji on 13 June and 14 June, and two attacks directed against the US Embassy and a joint CF-ISF headquarters in the International Zone on 10 June and 18 June.

As regularly discussed, this ongoing spike in attacks is connected to the strategic dialogue held between the US and Iraqi governments on 11 June concerning the future presence of US forces in Iraq. To recall, the next round of talks addressing the reductions in US forces and associated timelines is scheduled to take place in the US in late July. The US undoubtedly intends to exert significant leverage in order to moderate the scope of US military reductions, and mitigate as required through increased allied commitments. Through this spike in attacks, Iranian-backed groups signaled intent to continuously target US forces as long as a sizeable US military footprint remains in Iraq.

In addition to elevated attack frequency, with nearly one attack per day since 13 June, the responsible threat actor is showing signs of escalating the scale of attacks. Initial attacks were limited to 1-2 rocket salvos in a relatively reserved kinetic statement. However, deviations continue to mount as noted by the intended employment of 20 rockets during the 14 June attack against Camp Taji, the employment of three rockets during the 16 June attack near BIAP, and six rockets during the 18 June attack in the International Zone. As previously discussed, there was a clear potential for escalations in the intensity of anti-US militant activity in accordance with the perceived outcome of ongoing discussions between the US and Iraqi governments.

GoI continues to stress willingness to counter attacks, but veracity and impact remains doubtful:
The US government continues to avoid mention of these rocket attacks for the time being. As previously discussed, it is not in the US government’s interests to jeopardize its position through bold military actions against Iranian-backed groups within Iraqi territory ahead of the July talks. Instead, the US has increasingly pressured the GoI to prevent such attacks. On 16 June, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi led an emergency meeting at the Iraqi National Security Council in response to this threat. The Joint Operations Command was tasked with forming an investigative committee to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. As repeatedly seen, the GoI remains reluctant to even allude to the involvement of specific Iranian-backed groups due the potential political and militant blowback.

On 17 June, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Maj. Gen. Khalid al-Muhanna stated that security forces arrested an unspecified number of unnamed individuals accused of involvement in rocket attacks in Baghdad province. “We have arrested those involved in the launching of the rockets, and there is a real will to end the bombarding of the Green Zone and military bases” said Muhanna. He questioningly added that details pertaining to the operation were confidential so as not to disclose aspects of the investigation, and to prevent additional perpetrators from escaping.

This report significantly formed the first instance in the recent past where the GoI claimed the arrest of individuals accused of being responsible for attacks against US interests. However, the exceedingly vague details induce a significant level of doubt as to the veracity of the claims. Even if authentic, the arrests were clearly transparent to relevant attack capabilities and intent as demonstrated by yet another rocket attack hours later. The GoI is expected to continue to promote perceptions that it is supporting the US government’s force protection priories ahead of the next round of talks in July. Only limited optimism is in effect for a positive shift in patterns.

For further detailed discussion and analysis, please see the full report.

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