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We anticipate that attacks by Iran-backed groups in Iraq against US military interests will increase in tempo over the coming weeks

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 25 October 2023.

  • Those groups have already launched several such attacks in recent days
  • Iran is likely to provide support for these groups in terms of logistics and supply of weapons and military equipment

We anticipate that Iraq will be particularly dangerous over the coming weeks as a result of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. Iran-backed groups in Iraq have already mounted several attacks against US military interests over the past few days and appear motivated to continue as long as Israel carries on military operations in Gaza. Attacks will largely include drone and rocket attacks against US military bases and diplomatic interests in major cities including Baghdad. While we have not seen specific threats towards foreigners (including US civilians), security risks for bystanders appear to be elevated, particularly since some US bases are co-located near civilian infrastructure such as airports.

Iran-backed groups in Iraq resuming attacks against US

Iran-backed proxy groups in Iraq appear to be particularly motivated to target US military interests countrywide. We have recorded at least four armed drone attacks against US military assets over the past week. On 20 October, militia groups reportedly launched a rocket towards a US facility near Baghdad International Airport, which led to it closing briefly. This follows a lull in hostilities between these groups and the US over the past year; there have been no attacks against US military bases since May 2022, based on a recent report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict appears to be the main motivation behind pro-Iran militias resuming attacks. In a sign of their intent to mount such attacks, those groups have recently announced the formation of a new military alliance – the Islamic Resistance of Iraq – and have posted online several messages blaming US support for Israel and calling for attacks against US military bases. The Iraqi government also seems unable to rein in these groups as these operate fairly independently from it and seem highly likely to act in line with Iranian directions instead. US officials have directly accused Iran yesterday of being behind these attacks against US bases across the region.

On current indications attacks, would most likely include drone or rocket attacks targeting US military and diplomatic facilities. Established patterns suggest that such incidents are particularly likely in Baghdad, such as at the US Embassy, the Baghdad Diplomatic Security Center (BDSC) near the Baghdad airport. They are also likely in US military bases countrywide. Roadside bombings against US logistical convoys are also a common tactic that militias have used, especially in the south. In our view, the airport in the northern city of Erbil is also a probable target; this is mainly because a US military facility is co-located there. It was damaged in a rocket attack in February 2021.

Elevated risks for foreigners

Safety and security risks for foreigners in Iraq remain severe irrespective of the recent spike in attacks against the US. Several foreign governments advise against all travel there. But in light of recent events in Gaza, we understand that organisations operating in the country are already re-evaluating their security measures. Several clients we have spoken with over the past week have cancelled upcoming trips to Baghdad due to security reasons. Attacks on US military bases pose a high risk to bystanders, especially since some US bases are located near airports, as is the case in Baghdad and Erbil.

We have not seen any specific threats towards foreign civilians, including Americans. Pro-Iran groups seem to be targeting predominantly US military interests in the country. But there is a precedent of such groups manifesting their resentment of US presence in the country by targeting US diplomatic and even citizens. In November 2022, one of those groups killed a US citizen following a failed kidnap attempt in southern Baghdad. In a sign of these heightened tensions, the US government on 20 October ordered the evacuation of non-essential staff in both its embassy in Baghdad and its Consulate in Erbil ‘due to increased security threats against US personnel and interests’.

Iran’s direct role

In the event of a major regional conflict, Iran and its proxies would be likely to intensify attacks against the US and Israel’s interests in Iraq. In this scenario, we anticipate that Iran would probably shift from providing logistic support for its proxies in Iraq to intervening directly. Recent precedent suggests that this would include Iran targeting Iraqi Kurdistan, where it claims Israel holds intelligence assets. In March 2022 it launched several ballistic missiles against what it claimed was an Israeli intelligence outpost in Erbil governorate.

Image: Protesters gather at Tahrir Square during an anti-Israel demonstration in Baghdad on October 13, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images.