First U.S. Strikes in Iraq Amid Iran-backed Escalation

On November 21 and 22, the United States conducted three strikes against Iran-linked forces after a close-range ballistic missile attack against the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq caused eight injuries. The first U.S. strike was a spontaneous attack by a U.S. AC-130J “Ghostrider” gunship, which returned fire and killed several of the militants who had launched the missile. Later, the United States carried out two additional strikes against deliberately selected infrastructure targets in Iraq connected to the Iran-backed groups responsible for the attack. Since groups backed by the Tehran regime began attacking U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq in the aftermath of Hamas’ savage October 7 attack on Israel, the AC-130J fire was the most immediate U.S. response to an Iran-linked attack, the first U.S. strike against Iran-backed groups in Iraq, the first known incident that was not against a deliberately selected target, and the first to have targeted the fighters directly responsible, not their infrastructure. There have now been at least 68 attacks on U.S. forces in the last five weeks—and five U.S. responses. Iran-backed groups have surpassed 150 attacks on U.S. personnel since 2021.

Thus far, U.S. responses have failed to stop further Iran-backed attacks. The United States, however, appears to be increasing the tempo of its strikes—hitting back at Iranian proxies three times in two days compared to three times over the previous four weeks. The AC-130 strike that targeted proxy fighters was also qualitatively different than those previous U.S. responses that targeted Iranian-linked infrastructure. Despite this, these three strikes, on their own, remain unlikely to deter the Iranian regime itself. To accomplish this, the United States will need to use rapid, consistent, and strong military force that holds the Iranian regime, its personnel as well as those of its proxy forces, directly accountable for the aggression it enables, alongside a surge of air defense assets to the Middle East that can better protect U.S. personnel and regional partners.