Iraq Rocked by New Violence as Tensions Escalate Among Soldiers, Militias and Militants

Two more rockets rained down in Iraq on Tuesday, prolonging a period of particularly violent unrest among soldiers, militias and militants with competing interests.

Reports emerged Tuesday of rocket fire and explosions near the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, spreading speculation of yet another attack targeting U.S. and allied personnel tasked with battling the hardline Sunni Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and who are also facing a growing resistance campaign from Shiite Muslim militias. Coalition spokesperson Colonel Myles B. Caggins III said the "Iraqis are investigating the explosions in Baghdad," but denied foreign personnel were targeted.

"As of 11pm (Baghdad Time), no rockets were fired at Camp Taji. In Baghdad no explosions occurred near US/Coalition facilities," Caggins tweeted in English and Arabic-language statements.

A spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Forces official militia collective said the group was aware of reports of the attacks, but referred Newsweek to the Iraqi military's Security Media Cell, which released further details of the incident.

"Two Katyusha rockets were fired from the Arab Jabbour area toward the Al-Jadriya area, one of which landed on an abandoned building near the Hajj and Umrah Commission, and one of which fell in the Tigris river, without significant losses," the cell said in a statement.

The latest incident comes a day after the military stated that two rockets landed on military sites in Basmaya camp after being launched from farmlands near the Nahrawan Brick Factory and days after confrontations between the U.S. and Iraqi militias.

iraq, rocket, attack, strike, baghdad
A photo shared March 17 by Iraq's official Security Media Cell shows what was said to be the aftermath of a Katyusha rocket strike that hit an abandoned building near Al-Jadriya, Baghdad, March 17. IRAQI SECURITY MEDIA CELL

Al-Taji was targeted Wednesday with what the U.S.-led coalition described as around "18 107mm Katyusha rockets," killing two U.S. soldiers and one service member from the United Kingdom. The U.S. retaliated the following day with a series of airstrikes against five sites suspected of being weapons depots for Shiite Muslim militias like Kataib Hezbollah, which the Pentagon blamed for the attack.

The Iraqi armed forces said Friday that the strikes targeted both military and civilian infrastructure, killing three soldiers of the 19th Commandos Division, two members of the 3rd Emergency Police Regiment and a civilian working at an airport near the holy city of Karbala. Others were reportedly wounded, including members of Kataib Hezbollah's Popular Mobilization Forces 46th Brigade.

Iraqi leaders, officials and other influential figures condemned the U.S. strikes and, on Saturday, Al-Taji was again targeted by what the U.S.-led coalition said was "at least (25) 107mm rockets," this time injuring three coalition personnel and two Iraqi troops. The following day, a group calling itself Usbat al-Thayyireen—or "the League of Revolutionaries" in English—claimed responsibility for the two rocket attacks on Al-Taji.

The Popular Mobilization Forces told Newsweek in a statement Monday that the new group had "no affiliation" to its official militias. The group's deputy leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in early January along with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike that prompted a revenge missile attack against an Iraqi base housing U.S. and coalition troops, pushed Iraqi lawmakers to vote for a withdrawal of all foreign troops and ramped fueled already-escalating tensions in the country.

The Iraqi government and armed forces have attempted to crack down on rogue operations targeting U.S. and other allied personnel but have also had to contend with the fallout of unilateral U.S. military actions in the country. Iraqi permanent representative to the United Nations Mohammed Hussein Bahr al-Uloom said Baghdad "expresses its condemnation, in the strongest possible terms" in two identical letters sent to the U.N. and the U.N. Security Council.

The letters also "call upon the Security Council to condemn the bombing operations against the Iraqi army and civilian facilities and to assume its responsibility to prevent the United States from committing such illegal acts according to international law and to place full responsibility for the human casualties and infrastructure that resulted from the aforementioned bombing operations."

The U.S. has played a major role in Iraqi affairs since waging two wars against it, the latter of which resulted in the overthrow of the government in 2003 and the establishment of friendly ties. Baghdad's post-war administrations have had also developed close relations with Tehran, a longtime foe of Washington with close links to Shiite Muslim militias that fought to expel U.S. troops.

Many of these groups went on to comprise the Popular Mobilization Forces in 2014, as both the U.S. and Iran scrambled to help Iraq battle ISIS. The militant group's defeat and the U.S. exit from a multinational 2015 nuclear deal with Iran have led to renewed tensions between the two powers, however, leaving Iraq stuck in the middle.

ISIS has, however, remained active in some parts of the country, staging occasional sleeper cell operations against Iraqi troops, militias, Kurdish fighters and of the personnel U.S.-led coalition. On Saturday, two U.S. Marines were killed while supporting local forces in anti-ISIS operations later claimed by the jihadi group.

In a statement sent to Newsweek on Tuesday, the U.S.-led coalition said that it "remains in Iraq at the Invitation of the Government of Iraq and will continue anti-ISIS advising and training operations." However, the international force "will operate from fewer locations but remains committed to supporting our partners in their fight against Daesh," according to the statement.

A day after Newsweek reported that the U.S.-led coalition was "re-positioning troops from a few smaller bases" in Iraq, foreign forces announced the transfer of a base at the eastern city of Al-Qaim near the Syrian border to the armed forces of Iraq, which in addition to addressing security concerns faces a protracted political struggle accompanied by swelling, sometimes violent street protests.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, who has warned the worsening dispute between the U.S. and Iraqi militias could lead to an ISIS resurgence, appointed former Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi as the country's new prime minister-designate on Tuesday. In this role, Zurfi will be tasked with forming a new government and negotiating the contending desires of various rival actors at home and abroad.