It’s a time for delivering messages in the Middle East, where messages rarely come without their near constant attendant: violence. On Monday night a volley of rockets struck a base hosting US troops in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. International media reported that one rocket landed in the base and another on residential areas nearby; one civilian contractor was reportedly killed, and six others were wounded, including a US service member. At least five Iraqi civilians were also injured, with one in a critical condition.
The militia group Saraya Awliyah al-Dam has claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack. The group remains, superficially at least, a mystery. It proclaims no overt allegiance and generally sticks to talking about kicking the US out of the Middle East and taking revenge for the 2020 US drone strikes against Iran’s most famous soldier, the Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani and Ab Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi commander of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (a conglomeration of mostly Shia militia groups).
The truth is that it’s an Iranian front. According to Phillip Smyth, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Saraya Awliyah al-Dam is part of a wider policy that Iran has been rolling out since 2019, using proxies to attack Iraqi logistics organisations (usually trucking lines), as well as doing the odd bit of extorting and intimidating the locals.
‘This is all about slow rollout signalling,’ he says. ‘They are saying to the US: “we can reach out and touch you wherever you are in Iraq.” Using a front group as opposed to one of their known Shia proxies is just another message. When they use their proxies, they have some form of plausible deniability. This is them saying this isn't us at all when everyone knows it is: implausible plausible deniability, you might say.’
The signalling has indeed been ongoing. Last year, after the Soleimani hit, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed a ‘severe revenge’. That came in the form of a near-identical missile attack on two bases housing US and coalition forces in Iraq. The strikes targeted the Al-Asad airbase located in the Anbar province of western Iraq, and – like Monday – a base in Erbil.
Even if Saraya Awliyah al-Dam prefers to remain relatively opaque it made its point about the Erbil attack bluntly enough. In an Arabic statement the group highlighted its use of the ‘107mm rockets,’ which everyone knows are Iranian-made, in the attack. Iran has always loved to signal with its missiles; and it is doing so once more. Now Washington must contend with the fact that the Iranians, or their proxies, can strike US facilities over 1,000km from Tehran.
The result is that these sorts of attacks now combine drama with mundanity. On Tuesday morning, I spoke to a British friend working in Erbil. ‘I was eating pasta on the sofa and watching Last Kingdom, when I heard a loud bang,’ he told me. ‘I messaged a colleague who lives in the same complex and she told me there was a fire in the airport. Must have been a rocket attack. She sounded shaken so I went over there to provide support. We ended up having a couple of beers and some Jameson.’
As the new US administration takes power, forces across the region are jostling to get their message across. Last year closed with the assassination of Iran nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by Israeli Mossad. The hit took out a key nuclear figure, but it was also a message. Jerusalem was talking to Washington and its import was clear: administrations change, our security concerns don’t.
My friend went through a similar attack the week he arrived in Erbil. He is starting to worry that he’s jinxed. His words though point to the quasi-perfunctory nature of all this. The Iranians are not intending to cause mass casualties. In fact, they deliberately avoided it with this attack, just as they did when they struck the two US bases last year. This is not about starting a war it’s just diplomacy, Middle East-style.