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Drone Attack on Syria Base Came From Iraqi Militants, U.S. Officials Say

The Wall Street Journal. 8/30/2022 Michael R. Gordon, David S. Cloud
© U.S. Army

The drones that attacked a U.S. military compound in southeast Syria on Aug. 15 were launched by Iranian-backed militants in central Iraq, U.S. officials say, posing a challenge for the White House as it seeks to navigate Baghdad’s tumultuous politics.

The Iraqi militia’s alleged involvement was briefly made public last week when a U.S. military command in the Middle East tweeted a map showing that the attack had been launched from Iraq and providing photographs of remnants of the Iranian drones.

But officials at the White House’s National Security Council and the Pentagon expressed concerns about the disclosure. The Defense Department instructed that the tweet be deleted “due to operational sensitivities in the region,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Defense Department spokesman, told The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. officials say the information in the tweet was accurate and that the drones were launched from Iraq’s Babil province in an area controlled by Kataib Hezbollah, a militia with close ties to Tehran.

Throughout his administration, President Biden has chosen to retaliate against drone attacks by militias on Iraqi territory by striking targets in Syria or in far western Iraq near the Syrian-Iraqi border.

In line with that strategy, the Biden administration opted to retaliate against the drone attack from Iraq with airstrikes on Aug. 24 against Iranian-backed militias in Syria. The approach appears intended to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, without intervening in Iraq’s turbulent politics.

“We open up a much bigger can of worms if we drop bombs on a target in Iraq,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank on Middle East policy. “At this moment, it is something that could change the political game there. Opposing an American military role is something the Sadrists and Iran-backed elements could agree on. It is cost free to do it in Syria.”

A U.S. official said the target was chosen to send “a direct message” to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but declined to elaborate.

About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and U.S. officials are hopeful this force will be able to stay despite an escalating crisis in Baghdad that has pitted cleric Moqtada al-Sadr against a rival coalition of Iran-backed Shia parties over formation of the country’s next government.

Another 900 U.S. troops are in Syria, including soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, who have been training a Syrian force at the al-Tanf garrison that has been combating Islamic State militants. Soldiers were present during the Aug. 15 drone attack but none was hurt, U.S. officials say.

On Aug. 24, U.S. F-15 and F-16 jet fighters bombed ammunition and logistics bunkers in Syria that American officials said were used by Iranian-backed militias. Further fighting ensued when militants fired rockets at American positions in eastern Syria and the U.S. responded with Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships and M-777 howitzers.

Four militia fighters were reported to have been killed and 10 of their rocket launchers destroyed in that exchange. Two U.S. troops were wounded by shrapnel, while a third suffered a concussion, but all three have since returned to duty, U.S. military officials say.

On Aug. 24, the U.S.-led command overseeing the effort to help Iraqi and Syrian partners fight Islamic State militants tweeted a map showing that the Iranian-made drones flew from Iraq’s Babil province to the outpost in Syria.

Babil, 25 miles south of Baghdad, is the location of Jurf al-Sakhar, a formerly Sunni town that has remained a militia stronghold since it was taken back from Islamic State in 2014.

The U.S.-led command that put out the tweet is headed by Army Maj. Gen. John Brennan, who has the authority to release information pertaining to his mission. The map didn’t show a photo of the launch site, but rather presented an infographic that was approved by U.S. intelligence and security officials in the region, according to a person familiar with the process. The goal in posting the tweet was to try to deter future attacks by making it clear that the U.S. was aware of the Iraqi origin, the person added.

The command’s tweet, however, drew concerns inside the White House’s National Security Council and the Pentagon, which asked that it be removed due to “operational sensitivities in the region.”

The Pentagon didn’t say what those sensitivities are, but some officials have expressed concern that the tweet could complicate the U.S. military’s dealings with Iraqi authorities or further escalate tensions. Another official said the tweet raised “operational security” concerns, but declined to be specific.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad declined to say if the ambassador shared the NSC’s and Pentagon’s concerns.

The main Shiite militia that operates in the area where the drones were launched is Kataib Hezbollah. Kataib Hezbollah on Sunday denied it was involved in attacking al-Tanf.

“Kataib Hezbollah did not exchange bombing with the American invaders in the past week, whether in Iraq or Syria or elsewhere,” said Abu Ali Al-Askari, a senior spokesman for the militia group, in a statement on Twitter.

In March 2020, the Trump administration ordered airstrikes that struck the area and four other locations the Pentagon said were weapons-storage sites. The attacks were in response to a rocket attack against Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, which killed two American troops and a British soldier, and injured 14 others.

Nongovernmental experts said there may be other reasons why Washington officials want to keep a low profile about the U.S. role in Iraq, which has failed to form a government since a parliamentary election last year.

“The issue of the U.S. military training role in Iraq hasn’t been there since the election, and that’s the way the U.S. would like to keep it,” said Patrick Osgood, an Iraq analyst at Control Risks, a consultant firm.

Other analysts say that the command was right to issue the tweet.

“There is no real cost to publicly exposing that we know that the Iranian regime is using its proxies and outposts in Iraq to attack U.S. troops,” said Joel Rayburn, who served as the U.S. special envoy for Syria during the Trump administration. “What hurts our credibility and weakens our deterrence is when the U.S. government bends itself into a pretzel to avoid saying what an entire region plainly sees.”

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com and David S. Cloud at david.cloud@wsj.com

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