BAGHDAD – The United States is grappling with a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq after militias specializing in the use of more complex weapons, including armed drones, hit some of the most sensitive American targets in attacks the U.S. defense forces bypass.
At least three times in the past two months, these militias have used small, explosive-laden drones that ricochet off their targets during nighttime attacks on Iraqi bases – including those used by the CIA and US special forces.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the chief American commander in the Middle East, said last month that the drones pose a serious threat and that the military was rushing to find ways to counter them.
Iran, weakened by years of tough economic sanctions, is using its proxy militias in Iraq to increase pressure on the United States and other world powers to negotiate easing these sanctions as part of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iraqi and American officials say Iran designed the drone strikes to minimize the number of casualties that could lead to US retaliation.
Michael P. Mulroy, a former CIA officer and senior Middle Eastern policy official at the Pentagon, said the drones with the technology of the Iranian Quds Force – the outward-facing arm of the Iranian security apparatus – are moving quickly at relatively low levels costs become more complex.
“The drones are a big deal, one of the biggest threats our troops face there,” he said.
A senior Iraqi security official said the drones presented a challenge but were tools and not the core of the problem.
“This is leverage,” said the official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about Iran. “Iran is suffocating economically. The more it suffers, the more these attacks increase, ”he added. “The problem is the conflict between the US and Iran.”
Iran has been using proxy militias in Iraq since 2003 to influence Iraqi politics and threaten the United States outside its borders.
Since late 2019, Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias have carried out more than 300 attacks against US interests, killing four Americans and about 25 others, mostly Iraqis a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published in April. Over the past year, a proliferation of previously unknown armed groups has emerged, some of which have professed rocket attacks on US targets.
The increased precision of drone strikes this year marks an escalation in the more frequent Katyusha missile strikes, which US officials viewed as more of a nuisance. These attacks, which were launched by mobile launch vehicles, were aimed at the US embassy in the Baghdad Green Zone and at military bases home to around 2,500 US forces and Thousands of American military companies work.
In contrast, some American analysts say that the militants are now targeting locations, even certain aircraft hangars, where highly developed armed forces MQ-9 reaper Drones and contractor-operated turboprop surveillance planes are being deployed to disrupt or paralyze US intelligence capabilities, which are critical to monitoring threats in Iraq.
The United States has used Reaper for its most sensitive attacks, including the killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi government official and leader of the Iraqi militia. in Baghdad in January 2020.
While the United States has installed defenses against missile, artillery and mortar systems at installations in Iraq, the armed drones fly too low for those defenses to detect, officials said.
On April 14, shortly before midnight, a drone attack was aimed at a CIA hangar within the airport complex in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, according to three American officials familiar with the matter.
No one was reported injured in the attack, but it did alert Pentagon and White House officials about the covert nature of the facility and the sophistication of the attack. Details of this were previously reported by the Washington Post.
A similar drone attack in the early morning hours of May 8 on the sprawling Ain al-Asad air base in western Anbar province – where the United States also uses Reaper drones – raised concerns about the tactics of the militia among American commanders. According to Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, the attack caused no injuries, but damaged an aircraft hangar.
Three days later, shortly after midnight, another drone hit an airfield in Harir, north of Erbil, operated by the military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command. The explosives-laden drone crashed and caused no injury or damage, coalition officials said, but fueled growing concerns.
While many attacks on U.S. targets result in declarations of responsibility by militias almost instantly, the more complex and far-reaching drone strikes have not.
“There is growing evidence that Iran is trying to have, or have created, special groups capable of very sophisticated attacks against US interests,” said Hamdi Malik, associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the policy focuses on Shiite militias.
The US armed forces in Iraq operate under strict Iraqi guidelines, which focus on the fight against the Islamic State or ISIS. Iraq requires the US-led coalition to approve the use of surveillance drones, which focus on parts of Iraq where there are still IS pockets and generally lock down the entire south of the country, a militia stronghold.
Since the US closed its consulate in the city of Basra three years ago citing Iranian threats, there have been no US forces or diplomats south of Baghdad.
“It’s a very successful method of attack,” said Michael Pregent, a senior staff member at the Hudson Institute and a former US intelligence officer stationed in Iraq. “It allows these attacks to be launched from areas outside the US military presence in Iraq.”
Mr Pregent said that by its very nature, satellite surveillance could only be used to monitor other parts of Iraq for a limited time and could not pursue moving targets.
In addition to the attacks on American targets in Iraq, an armed drone believed to have been fired from southern Iraq struck the Saudi Royal Palace in Riyadh in January. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been arch-rivals for regional power and influence, and during groundbreaking talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis called for Iran to stop these attacks, according to Iraqi officials.
During a visit to northeast Syria last month, General McKenzie, the top American commander for the region, said military officials are developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, boosting radar sensors in order to speed up approaching threats recognize and find effective ways to shoot down the plane.
In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some remains of the drones have been partially recovered, and preliminary analysis showed that they were made in Iran or used Iran-provided technology, according to the three American officials familiar with the incidents.
These drones are larger than the standard quadcopters – small four-rotor helicopters – used by the Islamic State in the Battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reaper, which has a 66-foot wingspan. Military analysts say they have between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives on them.
Iraqi officials and US analysts say that while Iran has cut funding for large Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting off smaller, more specialized proxies that still operate within the larger militias but are not under their direct command.
US officials say these special forces were likely entrusted with the politically delicate task of carrying out the new drone strikes.
Iraqi security commanders say groups with new names are front lines for traditional, powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran used the new groups in talks with the Iraqi government to hide its responsibility for attacks on US interests, which often involve killing Iraqis.
The Iraqi security official said members of the smaller, specialized groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and in Lebanon and Iran by the radical Islamic Revolutionary Guard, which oversees proxy militias in the Middle East.
American and Iraqi officials and analysts attribute the growing unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the US killing of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.
“Because Iranian control over its militias has been fragmented following the assassinations of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, competition between these groups has increased,” said Malik, an analyst with the Washington Institute.
Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan Reporting contributed.