At least 10 missiles struck the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq on Sunday, January 21st, injuring several US service members in what US officials described as a deliberate attack likely carried out by Iranian-backed militias. The strikes marked a serious escalation of tensions between Iran and Western forces in the region.
Attack Carried Out by Iran-Aligned Groups Operating in Iraq
According to Colonel Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the US-led military coalition in Iraq, the attack targeted the same base where Iran carried out a massive ballistic missile attack in 2020 after the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. While no group immediately claimed responsibility, US officials believe Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq were behind the new attack.
In a statement, Marine Gen. Michael E. Langley, commander of US Central Command, said the attack “ displays a blatant disregard for Iraqi sovereignty and normalization of relations between Iraq and the global community.” He said the US and the coalition reserves the right to respond and will take “appropriate measures” against those threatening Iraq’s sovereignty.
Iraq’s military released a statement saying 33 missiles were launched between 1:05 a.m. and 1:32 a.m. on Sunday and the military found seven rocket launchers: three in the Al-Baghdadi area and four in Dulab.
At Least 4 Service Members Injured
At least four US service members sustained minor injuries in the attack, according to two US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. No one was killed.
Details remained scarce, but Denmark said a number of Danish troops stationed at Ain Al-Asad were also wounded.
Col. Marotto said the wounded personnel have already returned to duty. He did not elaborate on the injuries but said “early warning systems worked,” allowing troops to take cover.
Escalating Tensions Between Iran and the West
The missile barrage comes amid tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program and proxy attacks across the region attributed to Iran.
The attack also comes on the heels of threats from Iranian-backed militias following a wave of airstrikes against their positions in Iraq and Syria by Israel over the past month. Israel has struck Iranian weapons shipments and infrastructure bound for Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group amid fears that Iran is seeking to develop precision-guided missiles there that could hit targets inside Israel.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah warned last week that the group had obtained sophisticated anti-ship missiles. Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah skyrocketed in 2021 amid claims that Iran has sought to upgrade the capabilities of the group, which is a major political force in Lebanon in addition to being a powerful Shiite armed movement.
Meanwhile, nuclear talks between Iran and world powers aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions remain deadlocked, even as the country enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels under decreasing international oversight.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sunday’s attack near the western Iraqi city of Hit.
Iraq Caught Between US and Iran
Iraq finds itself caught in the middle of soaring tensions in the region, often bearing the brunt of attacks by both sides as Tehran and Washington use Iraqi territory to launch strikes without taking responsibility or being held accountable.
Earlier this month, a rocket attack on a major oil refinery in the north caused a 10-day pause in operations. Repeated rocket attacks targeting the US Embassy in Baghdad in recent years have strained Iraq-US relations. They are blamed on Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups.
At the same time, Iran-aligned Shiite militias are an integral part of Iraq’s security forces. Israel, meanwhile, continues to strike Shiite militia weapons depots and convoys in Iraq.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said he would form a high-level delegation headed by the foreign minister to “study the form and nature of the relationship with the United States.”
Risk of Wider Conflict Remains High
While tensions in the Middle East simmered down after the 2020 US airstrike that killed Iran’s General Soleimani, Sunday’s missile attack shows the risk of wider conflict remains worryingly high.
The cycle of attacks and reprisals reflect that neither Iran nor Israel have succeeded in deterring the other from carrying out attacks. With Iran’s nuclear program advancing, Israel feels it has diminishing room for action. At the same time, repeated strikes inside Iran only seem to have emboldened militias aligned with Tehran to undertake bolder attacks targeting US forces.
As Iran provides support to armed factions across the region, new fronts of violence risk opening from Lebanon to Yemen. The next violent outbreak could quickly engulf not just Iran and Israel, but also global powers like the United States. The course of future events depends greatly on Western engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue. But unless substantial progress is made soon, hardliners opposed to compromise may undercut any deal while continuing to ratchet up pressure across the region.
The path ahead thus remains fraught. While all sides may wish to avoid uncontrolled escalation, the repeated exchange of attacks raises chances that a miscalculation could spark wider fighting. The onus is on Iran and world powers to swiftly revive the nuclear accord in exchange for sanctions relief before violence once again dangerously spirals out of control.
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