A charred playing card sits in the ruins of a barracks destroyed in a Feb. 15 rocket attack on a base in Erbil, Iraq.

A charred playing card sits in the ruins of a barracks destroyed in a Feb. 15 rocket attack on a base in Erbil, Iraq. Katie Bo Williams / Defense One

Troops Describe Night of Fire From Shadowy Iraqi Militants

After the first rocket struck the Erbil base on Monday, “everything happened pretty quickly.” But U.S. officials still aren't sure who's responsible.

ERBIL, Iraq — When the base’s incoming-fire sirens shrieked, the firefighters had just seconds to roll out of their bunks onto the tent floor and cover their heads before the rocket hit.

The explosion swiftly engulfed two of the fragile barracks in flames. Although it was 9:30 at night, not all of the 20 men who slept there were inside. Firefighters moved quickly to save their own, pulling injured men from the tents and moving their trucks to fight the fire. There were shrapnel injuries, some severe enough to send the men to surgery, and one U.S.-employed contractor was killed. 

Elsewhere on the base, Louisiana National Guard Capt. Brandi Tregre was on her way to the latrine to get ready for bed when she heard the sirens start to scream. She paused to see if it was an exercise. Then she looked over to the airstrip and saw the first rocket strike. 

“After that point, everything happened pretty quickly,” she said.

The Feb. 15 attack, which was quickly claimed by a group widely believed to be linked to Iran, came at a transition moment on this U.S. base in northern Iraq in more ways than one. At that time of day, service members on the night shift were just settling into work, while those on the day shift were moving through their evening routines before bed. Tregre’s unit, the Louisiana Guard’s 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, had only been in Erbil for two weeks. The entire brigade isn’t even there yet, with some service members and assets still held up in other parts of the region because of COVID restrictions. 

And the attack — a shocking and unusual assault on a city normally seen as relatively safe and peaceful — comes as the region is closely watching how newly inaugurated President Joe Biden will handle Iran and its web of proxy groups. 

The Guardians of Blood

At some other bases in Iraq where U.S. troops are located, like Baghdad, such rocket attacks have become almost routine — usually the work of rogue Shiite militia groups seeking to oust the United States from the region. But the Erbil base hadn’t seen one since September, when rockets fired by unknown militants struck the adjoining international airport without injuring anyone. Even more concerning to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, Monday’s attack was launched from inside its own borders, puncturing a sense that its security measures were stiff enough to prevent that kind of infiltration. 

“For Erbil, it’s very unusual. Historically this Kurdistan, Erbil, region has not had as much violent activities,” Col. Scott Desormeaux, who leads the 256th, said on Wednesday. “They had their issues [when ISIS controlled a broad swath of physical territory across Iraq and Syria], but as far as in the near-recent past — definitely unusual.”

Four days after the attack, U.S. military leaders still aren’t sure precisely who was behind it. The truck with the mobile rocket launcher in the bed has been found, and a relatively unknown group calling itself Saraya Alwiya al-Dam — “the Guardians of Blood” — claimed responsibility. Regional security experts say that the group is most likely a front for better-established Shiite militias in Iraq, many of whom have ties to Iran, but the United States hasn’t reached a hard attribution for the attack yet.

“We were discussing the group this morning and just how little we do know about the Guardians of Blood,” Desormeaux said.

This kind of uncertainty isn’t unusual in Iraq and Syria, where a myriad of constantly shifting militia groups can complicate an immediate determination of responsibility. The nature of their ties to Iran can be complex. Although some of the more active groups, like Kataib Hezbollah, are “generally responsive” to Iran, “not every entity at every level” does as directed, said Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, in a January interview. Some attacks are carried out at the express direction of Tehran, but some local attacks are a surprise to Iranian state leadership. And some of these groups use “a variety of front organizations...try to control or hide the attribution,” McKenzie said. 

“It’s a complex thing to determine that kind of attribution although we’re actually reasonably good at doing it,” he said. 

British Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Copsey, the deputy commander for strategy in the counter-ISIS mission, suggested that it was likely the work of an offshoot, rather than the main body of one of the more powerful militias like Kataib Hezbollah or Asaib Ahl al-Haq. 

“There is a sense that the rocket attack was done by a splinter group,” Copsey said. “You have your main militia groups, which arguably have their influence back into Tehran, and then you have these splinter groups that are self-interested. And they're unpredictable and they're out of control.” He emphasized that the investigation aims to uncover intent and the degree to which the attacks were directed by an outside organization.

Desormeaux suggested he didn’t believe the attack signalled an escalation on the part of the major Iran-backed militia groups. It could have just been “a big show” by a newer group to try to gain legitimacy — and funding, he said. 

“It seems like it’s all a bunch of separate gangs just trying to get access to some funding,” Desormeaux said. “So if they’re willing to do an event that can get some notoriety for them that can then get some access to funding, I think they’re willing to take the risk.”

Mike Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute who specializes in Iraqi security affairs and is widely seen in Baghdad as an authoritative voice on the swirling politics surrounding militia activity there, pins the ultimate responsibility for the attack on Asaib Ahl al-Haq. 

Saraya Alwiya al-Dam is a front group for the group, Knights said in an email, and its media outlets “are all over this, and had it before others, even foreshadowed 13 mins before the attack on Telegram.”

Both a political party and a militia group that receives funding and training from Iran, Asaib Ahl al-Haq has pushed for the ouster of the United States from Iraq and has a long history of attacks on Americans. The State Department designated Asaib Ahl al-Haq and its leader, Qais al Khazali, as a terrorist organization in 2020. 

“Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s primary motive is to show that they are the leader of the resistance in Iraq,” Knights said. 

The choice of Erbil as a target is a “cheap shot with [Iranian] backing,” Knights said. “They know they will receive little censure in Baghdad for hitting Kurds, and they can rhetorically link it to” ongoing Turkish operations in the region that the group also opposes.

“One of Those ‘Oh Crap’ Moments”

Army medic Sgt. Garret Hayes was lying in his bunk on his first deployment overseas when he heard the first impact and realized what was happening. He sat up in bed and looked at his roommate. “Hey, that’s actual IDF. We should get moving,” he said. Then the sirens started screaming: “Incoming!” 

It was the first “IDF” — indirect fire — that Hayes had ever taken. “It’s one of those, ‘oh crap’ moments,” he said. 

When Tregre, the Louisiana Guard captain, saw the rocket impact, her first thought was: “I’m sure there’s more coming, but I gotta get my guys safe.”

She made sure all of her soldiers were either inside a bunker or safely accounted for elsewhere, and then she and other leaders sent blood donors to the impact site. Operationally, the process went as smoothly as she could have hoped for in what was, for her unit, an unprecedented situation. 

Desormeaux, meanwhile, was busy making sure the sprawling base was locked down. The base is attached to Erbil’s international airport and technically belongs to the Kurdistan government, whose soldiers provide the outer perimeter of security. Coalition forces from several allied nations also operate there, as do intelligence and private military contractors, making coordination key to closing all the gates.

As the base commander, he was most worried about the same thing as Tregre: a secondary attack. 

“The most dangerous course of action is not really necessarily another indirect fires attack,” he said. “But this is an opportunity to create confusion for a direct attack to the base. The only way to prevent that is just a complete shutdown of all access points onto the base.”

Saraya Alwiya al-Dam correctly claimed that the base’s counter rocket, artillery, and mortar system — known as a C-RAM — did not deploy. But it “did allow us to track” the incoming fire, Desormeaux said. 

The location of the system “did not lend itself” to deployment in this attack, he said.

As firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control, Hayes left the fortified bunker where he and his roommate had taken shelter and ran to the limited medical facility on the base to help direct traffic, move patients and, finally, clean up at the end of the night. 

All told, 14 rocket rounds were fired at the base, with three striking inside the U.S. compound and the rest landing outside. One American service member received “minor injuries,” according to Desormeaux, and is back on duty. Eight civilian contractors, four of whom were American, were injured. And the firefighters — who are considered contractors — lost one of their own, a Filipino man whose nationality has not been officially disclosed. At least one rocket injured civilians when it landed in a residential neighborhood of Erbil, according to local press reports.

What Will Biden Do? 

The Feb. 15 attack presents an early test for the Biden administration, which wants to negotiate an updated version of the Iran nuclear deal struck by President Barack Obama and exited by former President Donald Trump in 2018. Biden is already facing criticism for being too soft on Iran from Republicans, who have long complained that the original deal did not address Iran’s proxy terrorism activity. The Trump administration said explicitly that it made no distinction between attacks carried out by the state of Iran and attacks carried out by its network of proxies. Biden’s response to the attack will be closely watched.

Trump in January 2020 ordered the killing of top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in response to a Kataib Hezbollah attack on another Iraqi military base in December that killed an American contractor. In March, he ordered the strike of five Kataib Hezbollah sites in Iraq in response to another attack that killed two Americans and one U.K. medic.

But even were Trump still in office, it’s not clear what kind of response Monday’s attack might have generated. Trump administration officials made it well known that the killing of an American was a “red line” for a military response. But although American civilian contractors were wounded in Monday’s attack, no Americans died. 

The Biden administration left its options open this week.

“The president of the United States and the administration reserves the right to respond in a timely manner of our choosing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday during a news briefing. “But we’ll wait for the attribution to be concluded first before we take any additional steps. 

“I will convey to you that diplomacy is a priority with this administration,” Psaki added.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has discussed the attack with Iraqi officials, he told reporters on Friday. “I reiterated our strong commitment to the defeat of ISIS and to supporting Iraq's long-term security, stability, and prosperity. That's a commitment that I made to my Iraqi counterpart and the Iraqi minister of interior just the other day after last weekend's deadly rocket attack in Erbil," Austin said.

Copsey, the deputy commander for counter-ISIS strategy, said that he did not believe whatever group carried out the attack was testing the new administration specifically, calling it an “opportunistic attack,” but that broadly, red lines are not always clear in an era in which a lot of U.S. and allied military activity happens below the threshold of traditional armed conflict. He suggested that by attacking Erbil, the militants may have been betting that the United States would not respond because it wasn’t the heart of the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Iraq. 

“There's a part of me that thinks: attacking Erbil because it isn't the US Embassy in Baghdad. So it's almost like it will not resonate, a stronger response,” he said, describing what the militants’ thinking may have been. “And I think therein lies the problem of, no one knows where the thresholds lie out here.”

But no matter whether the attack was intended as a stress test on the new administration, it almost certainly complicates its efforts to open the door to fresh diplomacy. 

“The Biden team was fond of saying that it's possible to pursue diplomacy on the nuclear file while also pushing back on Iran's malign actions in the region,” said Peter Rough, a Middle East analyst at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, in a tweet. “The first test case has now arrived & everyone's watching.”

Elizabeth Howe contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.