Who is killing Iraqi demonstrators and who is firing at US bases? Last week, five rockets were fired at the Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq's Anbar province. The base is a facility housing US troops. Ain al-Asad is something of a symbol for the 5,000-strong US presence in Iraq. President Trump visited the base last year, spending the day after Christmas with troops stationed there. Vice President Mike Pence was also there in late November, for Thanksgiving.
Two days later, Katyusha rockets were fired at the Balad airbase, 70 kilometers north of Baghdad. Again, this is a base where US forces and contractors are stationed.
There were no casualties in either attack. They were the latest in a string of similar incidents which have taken place on US facilities in Iraq since the beginning of the year.
These attacks have a number of things in common, other than that they are directed at US personnel and facilities: they appear to be intended for now to send a message rather than to cause injuries or fatalities among US troops. They are also notable in that no force or organization has taken responsibility for them.
The rocket attacks appear intended to send a message rather than cause injuries or fatalities among US troops.
The attacks are taking place in the context of continued unrest and security chaos in Iraq. Unlike in Iran, the demonstrations and protests in Iraq have not been crushed as yet by the actions of the security forces. Unlike in Lebanon, the number of participants has not declined. Rather, the protests in Baghdad and elsewhere are continuing at white heat. The resignation last week of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has not stemmed the energy of the protesters, who are demanding the resignation of the entire government, new elections and the overhaul of the country's political system.
The efforts by the authorities to crush the protests are also intensifying. On December 8, over 25 people were killed and more than 130 wounded when gunmen opened fire on demonstrators near the main protest camp at Tahrir Square in Baghdad.
More than 400 Iraqis have been killed and thousands more wounded since the protests began in early October. On Sunday, the violence erupted when armed men on pickup trucks attacked a building near the Sinak bridge occupied by the protesters. The building was torched and the attackers opened fire with live ammunition as the demonstrators fled the building.
More than 400 Iraqis have been killed since the protests began in early October.
The attack came a day after a series of mysterious stabbings left a number of protesters in Tahrir Square seriously wounded.
Like the attacks on Ain al-Asad and the other US bases, the killings of the demonstrators have been claimed by no organization. The Iraqi authorities in official statements on these incidents persist in a somewhat surreal claim that the killings are being committed by an unknown "third force" unconnected to the authorities.
An Arabic-language statement by Brig.-Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman of the Iraqi security forces' Joint Operations Command, issued shortly after the beginning of the demonstrations and quoted in a recent article in Jane's Intelligence Review, read that "there are no orders to use violence against demonstrators. The security forces are protecting demonstrators and property from 'mundisun,' who are trying to destroy the country." On the same day, Iraqi Ministry of Defense Spokesman Tahseen al-Khafaji stated that "mundisun have opened fire on demonstrators and Iraqi security forces."
Who or what is a "mundis"? This Arabic term has no precise translation, but is usually used to mean a "provocateur." Its use is associated with authoritarian regimes who seek to divert attention from their own repression by use of conspiracy theories. As such, it is a term of ridicule for many reform-minded people in the Arab world.
So if the aforementioned, mysterious "mundisun" don't really exist, who is killing demonstrators in Baghdad, and who is firing rockets at US bases? Might the two sets of perpetrators be connected, and what explains the reticence of both the Iraqi authorities and the US to identify those responsible?
Actually, the answer is very clear. The riddle is why it has taken so long for the facts to be acknowledged in both Baghdad and Washington.
The evidence suggests that in both cases, the perpetrators are the Iran-backed Shia militias who today constitute the strongest and most potent political and paramilitary force in the country.
With regard to the attacks on US bases, the indications have been plain throughout the year that with the ISIS threat now set back, the Shia militias have been gearing up to seek to expel the US presence from Iraq.
With the ISIS threat set back, Shia militias are gearing up to contest the US presence in Iraq.
As far back as February 2, Iraqi security forces found and defused three missiles that had been set on a timer to be launched at the al-Asad base. The missiles were defused 15 minutes before they were set to launch.
On February 4, Ja'afar Husseini, spokesman of Ktaeb Hezbollah, one of the most powerful of the Shia militias, warned that clashes between the militias and the US "may start at any moment." This was the second such warning issued by the movement. "There is no stable Iraq with the presence of the Americans," Husseini declared.
His words were echoed by Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, who similarly declared that Iraq's security forces and "strong society" could easily expel the US service members currently deployed in Iraq.
It now appears that the tempo of attacks has continued and increased, while failing to attract wide media attention. According to a report in Bloomberg on December 7, no less than eight separate attacks have taken place on Iraqi facilities hosting US troops in the last five weeks.
The sophistication of the attacks, the munitions used, and the target all point to the Iran-backed militias. US patience is evidently now growing thin. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, speaking at a briefing in Washington on December 6, said with regard to the Balad and al-Asad attacks that "if past is prologue, I'd say there's a good chance it was Iran that's behind it." The US Treasury Department has now blacklisted Qais and Laith al-Khazali, leaders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Hussein al-Lami, security chief for the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Similarly, with regard to the actions against the demonstrators, there has been ample testimony from the very start that the gunmen firing at demonstrators were from the militias, and not some mythical "third force."
As one demonstrator told Iraqi reporter Kareem Botane as early as October 6, just five days after the protests began: "The government has changed its tactics, withdrawing its forces and bringing in other forces that belong to certain militias of the PMU [Popular Mobilization Units] – Khorasani and al-Nujaba [pro-Iranian PMU-affiliated militias]. According to information I got from emergency forces and police, they started with 300 people and these were deployed at the top of buildings – they were all snipers."
Iraqi politicians are either sympathetic to Iran-backed militias, or terrified of confronting them.
So if it has been clear from the start that the Iran-backed militias were almost certainly responsible both for attacks on bases hosting US troops and for the slaughter of demonstrators, what is the reason for the reticence of both Iraqi and (until recently) US officials?
The answer is that once the violent activities of a particular party are identified, logic holds that there may need to be a response. But the Iraqi political class is itself either on the side of the Iran-backed militias, or terrified of risking renewed civil war by confronting them.
The US, meanwhile, has been reluctant to accept the increasingly unavoidable fact that its 2003 invasion of Iraq has birthed a pro-Iranian Shia ascendancy in the country which is now trying to expel the remaining US forces.
When reality is too bitter and frightening to confront, political classes, like individuals, sometimes take shelter in denial. That, it appears, is the answer to the riddle of Baghdad.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.