On Sunday, May 19, after a rocket just missed the US embassy in Baghdad, US President Donald Trump declared furiously: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” But 12 hours later, he was playing down any immediate Iranian threat to the United States, adding he was ready to talk “if Tehran takes the first step.” In answer to White House reporters’ questions, he said further: “We have no indication that anything’s happened or will happen [sic].” Asked about Iranian threats to US interests, he said: “We have no indication that they will.”
But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took the opposite tack when he spoke later that night: “Today’s situation is not suitable for talks and our only choice is resistance.”
The contrasting viewpoints reveal that, whereas Trump is amenable to de-escalating the crisis, his Iranian counterpart sees an opening for more aggression i.e. “resistance” in America’s willingness to take it on the chin.
This expectation is borne out by a record of scot-free attacks on US diplomatic and military targets going back several months. They are spearheaded by a loyal henchman of Al Qods chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources name him as Qais al-Khazali-Kata’ib, chief of the Hezballah Iraq and Asa’ib Ahi Al-Haq militia. It was he who ordered Sunday’s rocket fire near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, sticking faithfully to his boss’ injunction not to damage the embassy or cause casualties.
The Trump team was not bowled over by this attack. For one, it was one of a series of similar acts and, two, a stream of intelligence had for some time warned of Iranian attacks on US targets in Iraq in the pipeline.
Those warnings prompted the top-secret meeting that took place at Langley at 7 am on April 9, attended by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs Gen. Joseph Dunford, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. The imminence of such attacks sent Pompeo flying in a hurry to Baghdad on May 8 for a snatched four hours of talks to warn Iraqi leaders that a rocket attack on the US embassy or US bases in Iraqi and Syria would elicit American retaliation – not just against Iran but also Iraq.
After all this hype, US silence after the rocket attack in Baghdad was all the more perplexing. It is also viewed in Tehran as an open invitation to keep going with more.of the same.
The last attack brought to the fore the star of the campaign of violence preying on the US in Iraq in recent months. Aged 44, Qais al-Khazali is the most dangerous and radical of Iraq’s Shiite militia chiefs under Tehran’s command. He has been orchestrating murderous assaults on American and British troops for the past 12 years. A sidekick of the Lebanese Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, their organizations have operated in tandem in Syria. According to a thick Israeli intelligence file, the pair have conducted combined operations against Israel, some in the Golan, from across the Syrian and Lebanese borders.
Intelligence specialists in the Middle East and the US CENCOM fully expect Al Khazali to continue to engineer rocket attacks against the US and Israel. Nevertheless, since last year, the Trump administration has shrugged off the Iranian-instigated strikes bearing down on US military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq.
On Sept. 29, the US closed its consulate in the southern Iraqi oil port of Basra, after two rounds of rocket fire that month. It was preceded by Iran-backed Shiite militias threatening Iraqi locals in contact with the consulate and preparing to snipe at consulate vehicles moving around the town.
That same month, the US embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone came under its first two rocket volleys, following sporadic clashes between the embassy guards and assailants.
On Dec. 27, four rockets again targeted the US embassy complex in the Green Zone, an apparent act of hostile defiance for President Trump’s Christmas visit to the US Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq’s western province of Anbar.
Early this year, too, on Feb. 2, a rocket attack on that very same air base was foiled. Acting on US intelligence, Iraqi forces held ready three 122mm Grads to fire at the assailants. That was not the end of it. On May 1, a couple of rockets were launched and intercepted before inflicting harm on the Taji military training complex, where the US offers the Iraqi army divisional HQ-level courses. The two munitions recovered were identified as new 107mm rockets of the kind Iran supplies to Iraqi Shiite militias for attacks on US facilities. Al-Khazali lost two of his operatives who were caught and arrested. But still no pro-active response came from Washington. The pattern of unresponsiveness, repeated after Iranian attacks on oil targets in the Persian Gulf, persisted
Still, Tehran’s rocket-wielding militia chief opted for prudent deniability – just in case the Americans came after him. On May 20, his Kata’ib Hezballah milia issued a statement claiming: “…the shelling of the Green Zone by a Katyusha rocket does not serve the public interest.” At the same time, the group incriminated itself by releasing images of the attack. A few hours later, the militia had a tall story to tell: The attack had revealed “parties working to put pressure on the resistance” – meaning that it was a conspiracy to plant a false flag against the Iraqi militia.