Washington/Baghdad — A defective drone in Iraq may have helped keep the US from being dragged deeper into a widening Middle East conflict.
The drone, which was launched at the Erbil airbase by an Iranian-backed militia before sunrise on October 26, penetrated US air defences and crashed into the second floor of the barracks housing American troops at about 5am, according to two US officials familiar with the matter.
But the device laden with explosives failed to detonate and in the end only one service member suffered concussion from the impact, said the officials, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the attack. The US had got lucky, they added, as the drone could have caused carnage had it exploded.
The incident was among at least 40 separate drone and rocket attacks that have been launched at US forces by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria over the past three weeks in response to American support for Israel in the Gaza war, according to Pentagon data and the two US officials.
The bombardment has only caused a few dozen minor injuries so far, with many of the rockets and one-way attack drones intercepted by US air defences in Iraq and Syria, where a total of 3,400 American troops are based.
David Schenker, a former US assistant secretary of state at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank, cautioned that while neither Iran and its allied groups nor the US appeared to want a direct confrontation, the risks were growing. The possibility of a major strike that draws America into a conflict is “a very realistic concern”, he said.
“I think they are calibrating the attacks to harass rather than kill en masse US troops,” he said of Iraqi and Syrian militias. “But there’s a lot more they can do.”
It is unclear how President Joe Biden would respond to a major attack that kills a large number of Americans. Struggling in opinion polls ahead of next year’s presidential election, Biden has so far sought to limit the US role in the conflict mostly to ensuring military aid to Israel.
Iran says it had no role in Hamas’ October 7 raid on Israel, though it has welcomed the attack.
On Sunday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken flew to Iraq — where most of the attacks on US forces have taken place — to push Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani to crack down on the militias operating there and avert any escalation.
Yet Sudani has had little luck in persuading the militia groups from letting up their assault, or convincing their bankrollers in Iran to rein them in, according to five legislators in Sudani’s governing coalition, a security adviser to the premier and a militia commander.
The prime minister and 10 members of his government met the commanders of about a dozen militia groups in Baghdad on October 23 to press the groups to halt their attacks on US forces, said the seven people, who were either present or were briefed on the meeting.
The plea largely fell on deaf ears, though, with most of the commanders vowing to keep up their assault until Israeli forces ended their siege and bombardment of the Gaza Strip, they said.
“No-one — not the prime minister or anyone else — can stand against our religious duty,” said Ali Turki, a Shiite legislator in the governing coalition as well as a commander with the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia.
Arif al-Hamami, another Shiite legislator, said the prospects for diplomacy looked bleak: “I don’t think the prime minister has the power to stop the attacks as long as Israel is committing atrocities in Gaza with American help.”
The Iraqi and Iranian governments didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the militia attacks and the risk of escalation.
Iraq’s prime minister has limited control over the militias, whose support he needed to win power a year ago and now form a powerful bloc in his governing coalition. The militant groups, which proliferated in Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni government, are trained and funded by Shiite power Iran.
For Sudani, it has been a case of shuttle diplomacy.
Hours after meeting Blinken on Sunday, the premier flew to Tehran to directly appeal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials for help, according to an Iraqi politician close to the prime minister who was briefed on the visit.
Sudani asked the Iranian officials to put pressure on the militias to halting their attacks on US forces in Iraq, fearing his politically and economically unstable country could ill afford an escalation that would see the Americans strike back against the militants, the politician said.
The officials told him that the militias in Iraq made their own decisions and Tehran would not interfere in the situation there, the politician said.
Iran has decried the retaliatory Israeli assault on Gaza as a genocide and warned that if it is not halted, the US will not be “spared from this fire”.
Meanwhile, the Hezbollah movement backed by Tehran in Lebanon — a group that sources say has acquired Russian anti-ship missiles — has warned Washington that it would pay a heavy price in a regional war.
Biden faces his own dilemmas as he receives a steady stream of reports about hostilities in the region. Among attacks outside Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, Iranian-aligned Houthi fighters unleashed 15 drones and four cruise missiles off the coast of Yemen that were shot down by a US navy destroyer with a crew of hundreds of sailors, US military officials say.
The present crisis has erupted after years of steady US withdrawal of military assets from the Middle East, including air defences, as Washington seeks to focus on Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and mounting tensions with China. That refocus accelerated after Biden’s complete pullout from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover there two years ago.