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Iran-backed militias are becoming more audacious in attacking U.S. personnel in Iraq, with rocket strikes against military bases occurring more frequently and, for the first time, in broad daylight.

U.S. officials say they are receiving near-daily reports of "imminent" attacks planned against U.S.-linked military or diplomatic facilities.

In the two weeks since the U.S. carried out bombing raids outside Baghdad to avenge a rocket attack north of the capital that killed a Briton and two Americans, President Donald Trump's administration has been wrestling with what additional steps to take to confront the militias without sparking costly retaliation.

David Schenker, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said last week that the U.S. would "take what steps that we see necessary" to retaliate for militia violence.

"This may ultimately come down to how much risk the president is willing to accept in Iraq before our presence there becomes too much of a burden," said a U.S. official.

Meanwhile in Iraq, where more than 5,000 U.S. troops are potentially in the cross hairs of the militants, American requests that Iraqi authorities track down and prosecute those responsible for rocket attacks have made little headway.

The confrontation between the U.S. and Iran -- the main foreign powers active in Iraq -- escalated dramatically in early January when a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the most influential figure in Iraq's militia network. Soleimani had been declared a terrorist by the State Department.

Although both sides then stepped back from the brink of war, recent rocket attacks that the Pentagon says Iran-backed militias carried out could soon spark another cycle of reciprocal violence.

The fatal rocket attacks earlier this month on Camp Taji, a military base north of Baghdad, were blamed by U.S. officials on Kataib Hezbollah, one of the main Iran-backed militias. The U.S. strikes carried out in response were condemned by the Iraqi army, which called it "treacherous," and a militia group threatened retaliation involving "an eye for an eye."

Since then, there have been at least four rocket attacks around U.S. military and diplomatic installations, and U.S. officials say they believe it is only a matter of time before more troops are killed or wounded.

"Kataib Hezbollah wants to pay back the Americans for the killing of Muhandis, absolutely," said a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

After the deadly rocket strikes on Camp Taji, it is not clear, he said, "if they feel the blood debt's been paid or they're just getting started. There are warnings and indicators that Kataib Hezbollah aspires to attack U.S. forces. But they always do."

In what one defense official described as "a lot of chatter about" further militia attacks, the Trump administration is calibrating its potential response.

Describing Trump's dilemma, Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and a former senior official on Trump's National Security Council, said that U.S. domestic concerns would play an important role. "My assumption is that the president is going to say: 'I'm not willing to escalate, to start something in an election year while we have coronavirus at home,' " she said.

The U.S. response to future militia attacks also could depend on whether American personnel are wounded or killed, and on the size and nature of the assault. "Where's the red line? That's the fundamental discussion," said the U.S. defense official.

Another militia attack comparable to the assault on Camp Taji, which involved 57 rockets fired by seven quad launchers, likely would provoke a more significant American response than would just a couple rockets, another official said.

The prospect of more militia violence is already influencing the U.S. posture in Iraq. More U.S. air defense equipment and personnel have been deployed there, officials said. New air defenses -- including C-RAMs and Patriot missile batteries -- are expected to be in place in the next week or two.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also said late Thursday that it had ordered nonessential personnel to leave Iraq, citing the security situation and travel restrictions relating to the coronavirus.

Information for this article was contributed by John Hudson, Ellen Nakashima and Mustafa Salim of The Washington Post.

A Section on 03/29/2020

Print Headline: In Iraq, rise in attacks vexing U.S.

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