Weeks of continued calm in and around Baghdad’s Green Zone were disturbed Tuesday when several rockets were fired toward the U.S. Embassy, located in the fortified area that houses key government offices and other diplomatic facilities.
Iraqi officials say at least three of the seven rockets fired were intercepted by the Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-Ram) system installed near the U.S. Embassy, but some of them fell in nearby civilian areas, killing at least one child and injuring several others. The attack did not kill or wound any Americans.
Initially, a new pro-Iran group called Ashab al-Kahf or “the cave companions,” which Iraqi intelligence sources describe as a subgroup of Kataib Hezbollah, the usual suspect in attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack on social media.
Denial of responsibility
But after news of civilian casualties broke, KH and its political ally in the Iraqi parliament, the Fatah Coalition, issued separate statements denying the involvement of Shiite militias in the attack. They both blamed it, without evidence, on President Donald Trump’s election performance.
“The shelling of the embassy came to cover up Trump’s loss in the elections through exporting his internal crises and trying to ignite a full-scale war,” the KH statement said.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a statement on Wednesday strongly condemned the attack, noting reports that “Iran-backed militias again took credit for the attack.” The statement also called on the Iraqi government to hold the violent armed groups accountable.
The new attack came nearly two months after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly called Iraqi leaders, threatening to close his country’s embassy in Baghdad if Iraqi authorities failed to stop the militia attacks.
In response to VOA’s question on whether Washington will close the embassy or take other actions over the latest rocket attack, a State Department spokesperson Wednesday said, “We understand the government of Iraq is currently investigating. We have no further comment at this time.”
In October, KH announced it was ceasing attacks on U.S. interests because they were promised by Iraqi officials that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq.
U.S. troop drawdown
Even though the attack came shortly after the Trump administration announced it would pull out several hundred of the 3,000 troops stationed in Iraq, Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the incident was unrelated to the withdrawal decision.
“The November 17 rocket attack was preplanned before the U.S. announcement,” he said, adding that the rocket attack was timed to coincide with a secret visit by Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was said to be in Baghdad that day.
VOA could not independently verify the alleged Baghdad visit by Qaani, who replaced Qassem Soleimani, who died in a U.S. drone strike in January.
“Militias [are] not emboldened. They have rushed to assure Iraqi government that it is not they who did it. They want to keep a low profile until Trump is out,” added Knights.
Pro-Iranian militias in the past, however, have described U.S. troop drawdowns as a success for their anti-American “resistance.”
The attack also came hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held a phone call with Pompeo. The two discussed the drawdown of U.S. troops and “the growing capability of Iraqis in the fight against terrorism,” according to a statement by Kadhimi’s office.
The Iraqi government issued a statement on Wednesday, calling those behind the attack “outlaws” and vowing that the perpetrators “will not go unpunished.”
Some experts, however, doubt that Iraqi authorities will be able to bring the attackers to justice.
VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report from Washington.