Biden’s Ill-advised Attack Prompts Threat of Retaliation from Iraqi Militia Leader

July 7th, 2021 - by Qassim Abdul-Zahara / Associated Press

Abu Alaa-al-Walae

Iraqi Militia Commander Vows to Avenge Deaths in US Strike

Qassim Abdul-Zahara / Associated Press

BAGHDAD (July 5, 2021) — The leader of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia has vowed to retaliate against America for the deaths of four of his men in a US airstrike along the Iraq-Syria border last month, saying it will be a military operation everyone will talk about.

Abu Alaa al-Walae, commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad that the electoral victory of Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as president will strengthen Iran-backed militant groups throughout the Middle East for the next four years. 

Al-Walae, who rarely gives interviews to foreign media organizations, spoke to the AP on Monday in an office in a Baghdad neighborhood along the Tigris River. 

On June 27, US Air Force planes carried out airstrikes near the Iraq-Syria border against what the Pentagon said were facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups to support drone strikes inside Iraq. Four militiamen were killed.

The Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sanctioned umbrella of mostly Shiite militias — including those targeted by the US strikes — said their men were on missions to prevent infiltration by the Islamic State group and denied the presence of weapons warehouses.

US troops in eastern Syria came under rocket fire the day after the airstrikes, with no reported casualties.

The US has blamed Iran-backed militias for attacks — most of them rocket strikes — that have targeted the American presence in Baghdad and military bases across Iraq. More recently, the attacks have become more sophisticated, with militants using drones. 

Late Tuesday, the counter-terrorism unit in Iraq’s northern Kurdish-run region reported a drone attack on Irbil airport, near where US forces are based. The statement by the counter-terrorism unit said the attack caused no damage, though the missiles fell in open fields and set fires. 

Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the US-led Coalition, said in a tweet that an unmanned aircraft system landed in the vicinity of the air base in Irbil. Initial reports, he said, indicate there were no injuries or damage. 

US military officials have grown increasingly alarmed over drone strikes targeting US military bases in Iraq, more common since a US drone killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last year. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack. The strike drew the ire of mostly Shiite Iraqi lawmakers and prompted parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country.

In mid-April, an explosives-laden drone targeted the military section of the international airport in Irbil, causing no casualties or damages. The base also hosts American troops. 

US officials said Iran-backed militias have conducted at least five drone attacks since April.

After midnight Monday, a drone was shot down near the US Embassy compound in Baghdad. There were no casualties. Two US military officials said the drone was launched by Iranian proxies, adding that it was weaponized with explosives and was loitering over the US-led coalition base in Baghdad. 

The officials said it was too early to identify the type of the drone. The US Embassy said defense systems at the compound “engaged and eliminated an airborne threat.” The statement added that “we are working with our Iraqi partners to investigate” the attack. 

The bearded al-Walae, wearing a black shirt and trousers and an olive-green baseball cap, hinted that his militiamen might use drones in future attacks. He did not go into details. When asked if they used drones in the past against American troops in Iraq, he gave no straight answer and moved to other subjects.

“We want an operation that befits those martyrs,” he said referring to the four fighters killed in late June. “Even if it comes late, time is not important.” 

“We want it to be an operation in which everyone says they have taken revenge on the Americans,” al-Walae said. “It will be a qualitative operation (that could come) from the air, the sea, along Iraq’s border, in the region or anywhere. It’s an open war.”

Al-Walae spoke in an office decorated with a poster of Soleimani. On a table next to him, a framed photo shows al-Walae standing next to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group. 

Al-Walae praised Iran’s new president, Raisi, who is scheduled to take office next month, saying Iran-backed militant groups “will have their best times.”

Days after he was elected last month, Raisi said in his first remarks after the vote that he rejects the possibility of meeting with President Joe Biden or negotiating Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support of regional militias.

Al-Walae, who was once held prisoner by US troops in Iraq, boasted that his men were among the first to go to neighboring Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces in 2012, a year after the civil war there broke out. He said their first mission was to protect a Shiite holy shrine south of the capital, Damascus. They later fought in different parts of Syria. 

Iran-backed fighters from throughout the region have joined Syria’s conflict, helping tip the balance of power in Assad’s favor. Thousands of Iran-backed fighters remain in Syria, many of them deployed close to the Iraqi border in the towns of Boukamal and Mayadeen. 

Al-Walae also said he doesn’t expect Iraq’s parliamentary elections to take place on time in October, saying they might be postponed until April next year. He attributed the delay to the deep crisis the country is experiencing, including severe electricity cuts during the scorching summer.

Associated Press writer James La Porta in Washington contributed to this report.

Biden’s Defense of New Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria Is Weak

Hayes Brown / MSNBC Opinion Columnist

(June 28, 2021) — The United States launched airstrikes on another country’s soil this week. Again. According to the Pentagon, the “defensive precision” strikes hit their targets in Iraq and Syria. Great victory, huge success, everyone shrugs and goes about their day.

Had almost any other country in the world fired missiles outside its borders, it would have been a crisis — here, it was Sunday.

It bears pointing out that this is not a great way for a country to handle matters of war and death, especially not the most powerful country in the world, and especially not a country that espouses the power of democracy. The US government is basically allowed to conduct military operations on autopilot with only the slightest oversight and accountability.

And while Congress is finally moving to do the bare minimum to curtail the White House’s ability to conduct “private wars,” there’s no sign that the executive branch is willing to dismantle the system that made these strikes a casual affair.

The legal justifications for using the US military overseas shouldn’t be an afterthought.

The aerial attacks were against “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated. Honestly, the who and what of the attack are almost secondary in this case because it bears almost no impact on the howof the matter. Which is to say, “How is it that the Biden administration has the authority to fire off missiles without there being a peep of debate in Congress or among Americans?”

Kirby offered up two defenses of the legality of the strikes in his statement:

As a matter of international law, the United States acted pursuant to its right of self-defense. The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and appropriately limited in scope. As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to protect US personnel in Iraq.

Let’s unpack that some, starting with the international law defense. It’s true that under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, states have a right to protect themselves against aggression. And it’s also true that the militias targeted have allegedly been using small drones carrying explosives to dive-bomb bases in Iraq in the last few months, including some where US forces operate.

That’s a troubling development — but here’s where the real problem lies. First, while Article 51 has been a favorite justification from the US for its military strikes, it’s debatable whether the clause was meant to allow for protecting troops based overseas instead of attacks directly on U.N. member states. Second, there wasn’t an attack occurring when the “self-defense” strike was launched — or even immediately preceding the US strike. (The militias in question did, however, launch a retaliatory attack against US forces based in Syria on Monday, which prompted return artillery fire from the US)

Third, and most important, Iraq — the sovereign country that has in theory been the one actually under attack in these drone bombings — says that the US was out of pocket Sunday. The strikes were a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security,” according to a statement from the military spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

There are definitely domestic and international political reasons for Kadhimi to go hard on Biden right now, including not wanting to aggravate Iraqi political parties that have Tehran’s backing. And their larger neighbor just elected a new hard-line president, so it’s an opportune moment to curry favor with the new leadership. But it doesn’t exactly help justify Biden’s decision.

More troubling to me is the domestic legal defense that the Biden administration offered up for its actions. Congress hasn’t authorized any sort of broad campaign against the militias that the White House targeted. It hasn’t even offered up a narrow authorization that would clear this attack under domestic law. And it’s striking to me, pun unintended, that the Pentagon wouldn’t cite what until recently would have been the likely best legal justification for the attack.

In 2002, Congress passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, against Iraq. Unlike the much broader 2001 version that targeted al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the 2002 AUMF gave the George W. Bush administration permission to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” Even after the 2003 war against the Iraqi government finally ended, though, Congress left the law on the books. It’s since then been used to justify things like the Obama administration’s war against ISIS in Iraq after its 2013 takeover and the expansion of that effort into Syria by the Trump administration.

The US government is basically allowed to conduct military operations
on autopilot with the slightest oversight and accountability.

Congress is finally moving to repeal the 2002 AUMF, something both parties agree is needed — sort of. The Democrats think the law just needs to be stricken, while Republicans argue that a new AUMF of some kind needs to take its place. Either way, the House this month passed its version of the repeal and the Senate is expected to take it up in the coming weeks.

That’s all great — but here’s the catch: Despite the strikes taking place in Iraq and Syria, the Biden administration didn’t even bother to cite the 2002 AUMF as giving it the power to launch the strikes. It likely knows that the law is on the way out, so why hinge military operations on a justification that won’t exist in the next few months?

Instead of citing any specific law, the strikes were presented as just something Biden’s kind of allowed to do under Article II of the Constitution. It was also based on the idea that Biden was acting in his role as commander-in-chief to protect US troops stationed abroad — but those troops are, in theory, only able to be stationed abroad because Congress has authorized their deployment as part of a legal operation.

That’s not how this should work. There can’t be a reliance on vague generalities. As we learned all too well in the Trump era, it’s never exactly comforting when a president bases his justification on a vague right under Article II. It’s even less so when it seems like this vague generality is meant specifically to provide an end-run around Congress. It shouldn’t be so easy for the president to launch a military attack overseas, and it shouldn’t be such a ho-hum experience that most Americans don’t even remember the attack happened two days later — if they ever heard about it at all, that is.

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