Interesting article: "Rockets hit near US Embassy in Iraq ahead of Soleimani anniversary" by AP. DW.com. December 12, 2020.
The US Embassy in the Baghdad Green Zone was targeted in a rocket attack. Iraqi security officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the embassy's C-RAM defense system shot down the rockets in midair, causing minor damage to a residential complex and parked cars. There were no reports of casualties. The attack took place two weeks ahead of the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which was directed by Washington. Sunday's attack was the third apparent violation of a truce agreed in October by Western and Iraqi authorities with hardline and pro-Iran groups.
The Trump administration has accused Iran of being behind a recent spate of attacks on US interests in the country and has warned Baghdad that it will close its embassy unless Iraq can get the attacks under control.
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ISIS in 2021:
First, we are looking at a post-ISIS world, but this is not the end of ISIS (Daesh). Post territorial defeat, Daesh has transitioned into a clandestine insurgency within Iraq and Syria, focused on destabilizing local security structures and undermining governance.
Regional and Coalition forces ended Daesh’s control of territory across Iraq and Syria in March 2019. Since then, regular counter-Daesh operations have continued, but Daesh has displayed a resilience which remains a potent threat to the future stability of Iraq and Syria. Daesh has transitioned into a clandestine insurgency, resulting in the conduct of less sophisticated attacks, albeit at much lower levels than at its peak. At present, Daesh largely operate in ungoverned spaces where it benefits from greater freedom of movement permitting them to plan, prepare and facilitate attacks in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, Daesh’s current activities are focused on destabilizing local security structures, undermining governance, stoking sectarian tensions, polarizing communities, and generating revenue. Daesh will almost certainly aim to exacerbate and manage the deterioration in social, political, economic, and ethnic conditions to project themselves as a credible alternative to current governance. The group remains ideologically driven and will continue to employ violence to support its long-term objective of re-establishing a Caliphate.
Elsewhere, Daesh still maintains a global network of affiliates and branches, to which it provides high-level strategic guidance and media and financial support. Affiliates in West Africa, South-east Asia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have been particularly active during the last twelve months, ensuring that Daesh continues to maintain momentum as a global insurgency. Reliance on these efforts enables Daesh to maintain its leading position within the global Salafi-jihadist movement. Although local affiliates and branches are deeply rooted in local conflicts, Daesh aspires to establish cohesive interlinked pockets of Islamic governance. However, competition with other extremist actors (such as al-Qaeda) and state counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations likely continue to serve as a limiting factor on further Daesh expansion.
Iran backed Shia Militia groups are fast becoming the larger regional destabilizing force. On the orders of Donald Trump, Iran's most powerful military commander, Qasem Soleimani, and his Iraqi ally, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Popular Mobilization forces (PM), were assassinated in Baghdad, angering the country's powerful Iran-backed paramilitaries.
Western troops became targets and the Iraqis they worked with were branded traitors.
The threat from Shia Militia Groups (SMG) in 2021:
The Western response to the threat posed by Daesh remains at risk because of the threat posed by SMG, who vehemently oppose the Coalition presence. This was demonstrated when three people were killed, a US soldier, US contractor and L/Cpl Brodie Gillon, a UK soldier, on 12 March 2020 at the Taji military camp, north of Baghdad. Iran also perceives Western presence in Iraq, and the wider region, as a direct threat towards its own interests and are able to exert influence over several of the SMG in its efforts to remove Western forces, including through violent means.
Whilst Coalition assets and locations remain the key priority, Iraq’s own organizations or institutions that oppose the Iranian-facing Shia Militia, have also been targeted. SMG are likely to continue to directly oppose Iraqi Security Forces to protect their own interests, directly undermining both the authority and capability of Iraq’s legitimate security apparatus. For example, on June 25 2020, troops from Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service arrested fourteen members of the Iranian leaning Kataib Hezbollah Shia Militia group as they set up rocket attacks on Baghdad airport and the U.S. Embassy. In response, the leadership of Kataib Hezbollah demanded that the Iraqi Government release the men into their custody.
Coalition bases now came under regular rocket attack, mainly claimed by unknown militia groups.
Many experts believe these new groups are just a front for powerful well-known Shia militia groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, in order to operate with more freedom. Unknown militia groups have issued several warnings, telling Iraqis who are working with coalition forces to leave their jobs immediately.
One of them calls itself Ashab Al Kahf or Companions of the Cave. It has claimed responsibility for many rocket attacks on coalition bases and the US embassy in Baghdad. Within the Shia community, some factions within the PMF stand accused of taking their orders from Iran instead of Baghdad, and that seems to be the cause of the gripe between Sistani’s followers and rival factions.
There are fractures in Iran’s influence as well, according to the Middle East Eye, a faction of four groups, made up of 15,000 fighters, that are loyal to the religious leader and are unhappy about Iran’s influence on the PMF, will form a new grouping called the Mobilization of Holy Shrines.
Forces loyal to Iraq’s most senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, are breaking away from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) amid tensions between rival Shia militias over Iran’s influence on the umbrella group. Sistani was instrumental in the formation of the PMF, which came into being after he issued a fatwa calling for a force to combat the Daesh terrorist group in 2014 after it had swept aside Iraqi army forces and seized much of the country’s north, including Iraq’s third largest city of Mosul.
The fighters were instrumental in defeating Daesh but also have a reputation for human rights abuses, particularly against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.
The US State Department has added the Bahraini Shia militia Saraya al Mokhtar to the US government’s list of designated terrorist organizations. Saraya al Mokhtar is one of many Iranian-backed groups operating in the region.
In its designation, State noted that Saraya al Mokhtar “is an Iran-backed terrorist organization based in Bahrain, reportedly receiving financial and logistic support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC].”
Saraya al Mokhtar has been open about its ties to the IRGC and its vast international network in the past. For instance, it has had a significant relationship with the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Imam Ali in Iraq. Kata’ib Imam Ali is led by Shibl al Zaydi, who was designated as a terrorist by the United States in 2018 for his ties to the IRGC.
Following his death in 2015, Saraya al Mokhtar noted its ties to Ala’ Hilel, a commander within Kata’ib Imam Ali. At the ceremony for the one-year anniversary of Hilel’s death, supporters spoke of how Hilel helped train a contingent of Saraya al Mokhtar fighters who went to Iraq.
Saraya al Mokhtar’s former flag was periodically seen flying inside Iraq by members of Kata’ib Imam Ali. While in 2016, Saraya al Mokhtar openly boasted about its representatives visiting Kata’ib Imam Ali sites inside Iraq.
Iran as a global threat in 2021:
Iran’s regime has conducted assassinations and sponsored terrorism throughout its 40-year history, targeting Iranian dissidents and foreign officials worldwide.
The violence dates back to 1979, soon after the regime seized power. Iranian students attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking American diplomats and embassy employees’ hostage in a gross violation of international norms. Fifty-two hostages were held for 444 days.
Since then, Iran’s regime has killed and maimed hundreds in targeted assassinations and bombing attacks in more than 40 countries, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Institute of Peace says the Iranian regime’s assassinations include at least 21 political opponents abroad killed between 1979 and September 2020.
Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have carried out attacks, though Iran’s leaders also work through proxy forces such as Hezbollah.
Hezbollah and other organs of Iranian terrorism have only continued plotting attacks. Indeed, an Iranian diplomat recently went on trial in Belgium for allegedly plotting to bomb a dissident rally in France. Yet perhaps the most damning examples of their malfeasance can be found in the Middle East, where Iran has played a pivotal role in fomenting chaos and exacerbating sectarian divisions.
SINCE HEZBOLLAH launched a war by abducting and killing Israeli soldiers in 2006, the group has amassed a stockpile of some 130,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon, which it seeks to convert into precision-guided munitions with Iranian support. This arsenal has predictably drawn Israeli concern, risking the outbreak of conflict in a country already ravaged by the corruption that empowers Hezbollah. At Iran’s behest, the group also came to the aid of Syrian President Bashar Assad as he stood accused of deploying chemical weapons, and extended support to Houthi insurgents in Yemen and Shi’ite militias in Iraq – themselves an important part of Iran’s web of clients and proxies.
Iran sustains this network in order to reshape the regional power structure in favor of its own imperialistic ambitions. It notably includes Sunni groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, reflecting a streak of pragmatism by the Shi’ite regime in Tehran that seeks to portray itself as a bulwark against Sunni jihadists while tolerating them when interests overlap. Indeed, recent reports about the assassination in Tehran of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an al-Qaeda operative indicted over his alleged role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings, once again raised questions over Iran’s harboring of al-Qaeda leaders.
There is a clear reason why the United States has labeled Iran a leading state sponsor of terrorism for decades, and why it is vital for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to remain focused on countering the long arm of Tehran. This is particularly relevant if Washington re-enters the 2015 nuclear agreement, which in its current iteration will both legitimize Iran as a nuclear threshold state and grant it much-needed economic relief.
As in the past, Iranian military spending can be expected to significantly increase once sanctions lift, making it critical for Washington and European powers to counter any corresponding increase in Iran-backed terrorism their diplomacy brings about.