The top U.S. general overseeing the Middle East suggested Thursday that an Iranian-backed militia was behind an attack the night before in Iraq that killed two U.S. troops, even as he said his command is still working on attribution.
“Yesterday, hostile forces, most likely Shia militia groups, launched more than a dozen rockets at U.S. and coalition forces at Camp Taji in Iraq, killing two U.S. and one British service member, as well as wounding several more,” U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Frank McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A US official told AFP that one US soldier, one US contractor and one British soldier were killed in the attack. Arab reports indicated that about 12 other soldiers were injured in the attack as well. One Polish soldier was also reportedly injured in the attack.
“While we are still investigating the attack, I will note that the Iranian proxy group Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against coalition forces in Iraq,” McKenzie added.
The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq announced Wednesday evening that 18 Katyusha rockets hit the base north of Baghdad, killing three and wounding 12. Iraqi force found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from Camp Taji, the coalition added.
U.S. officials previously blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack in December that struck a base near Kirkuk, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops.
That December attack set off an escalatory cycle that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war. The confrontation culminated with a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, followed by an Iranian missile attack on bases in Iraq that gave more than 100 U.S. troops brain injuries.
U.S. officials have touted the Soleimani strike as having “reestablished deterrence” against Iran.
But Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday night’s attack appears to undermine that talking point.
“The rocket attack on Camp Taji last night, reportedly carried out by an Iranian-backed militia, would seem to challenge the notion that we have reestablished deterrence with respect to Iran,” he said.
McKenzie argued that deterrence has been restored for attacks directly from Iran, but acknowledged proxy groups continue to pose a threat.
“I believe we have reestablished a rough form of deterrence, what I would call contested deterrence with Iran at the level of state-on-state attacks,” he said. “By that I am referring to things like obviously attributable ballistic missile attacks from Iran launched against U.S. forces. We have seen they have stood their missiles down. I don’t think that’s an imminent threat. What has not been changed is the continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly against us.”
Asked by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) how to deter that “asymmetric aggression,” McKenzie said the United States needs to hold the “source” in Iran responsible.
“You may ultimately live with a low level of proxy attacks in the region,” he said. “I would tell you certainly, I would believe a red line for the United States is going to be the death of U.S. service members or those of our partners and allies. So that’s a red line.”