Basrah airport has been hit by several mortars over the last week. Although no casualties were reported the facility was shut for several hours and flights delayed and cancelled as a result.
Blame has speculatively been assigned to local Shi'ah militia groups, such as those affiliated with the now splintered Jaysh al-Mahdi (the Mehdi army) and those taking direction from Iranian elements. The culprits have not been identified and whilst there is no firm proof, the attacks fit the modus operandi of these groups.
Initial reports focused on the disruption the airport closure had on Hajj pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia. However, the attacks may have been aimed at disrupting travel by individuals attending a high profile oil and gas conference in Basrah city. The militants were likely intent on sending a strong signal of presence to would-be investors. If the perpetrators were linked to Iran their intent may have been to illustrate the potential hazards Western firms may face when working in an area so affected by Tehran proxy groups.
Meanwhile, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has been granted 30 days in which to form a government. He is highly unpopular amongst the militant groups based in Basrah province after he clamped down on their activities in spring 2008. The arrest and killing of numerous militants in the operation Charge of the Knights has not been forgotten and the remaining elements may have wanted to express their displeasure with his mandate. Their aim would have been to embarrass al-Maliki and undermine his credibility as a stabilising force, not just in the eyes of Basrawis, but also amongst the foreign nationals travelling to Basrah to do business.
Alternatively, the attack may have been timed to coincide with Thanksgiving. American soldiers on site at Basrah airport were celebrating during the strikes, which may simply have been aimed at reminding US forces that they have not eradicated militant groups based in the country.
Rocket and mortar attacks in Iraq are most commonly directed at fortified and 'secure' facilities. These areas are normally too well guarded for terrorists to gain access. A mortar, which can be fired from a distance, is therefore the only means available to a group seeking to cause damage and casualties. As such, the risk is highest in the locations where personnel might otherwise consider themselves to be 'safe'. The Green Zone, for example, suffers the vast majority of mortar attacks in the country. Conversely, areas in the so-called 'Red Zone' may be perceived as being dangerous, but they are rarely subjected to mortar attacks, save those aimed at the Green Zone but which fly astray accidentally. Airports and US military bases are the next most affected facilities.
While this may make the International/Green Zone sound like an alarming place, it should be noted that mortar attacks are now highly infrequent when compared to earlier years. Furthermore, most attacks tend not to cause casualties. In the event that an attack does take place, however, personnel should be prepared.
Before travelling to Iraq individuals should have adequate insurance cover for their activities. Hostile environment training should also be considered so that the risk posed by mortars (and other tactics) can be fully explained, learnt and prepared for. Once in the country, and especially in areas deemed otherwise 'secure' such as bases, airports and the Green Zone, individuals should familiarise themselves with emergency procedures such as warning sirens and evacuation routes. The whereabouts of your nearest shelters, exits, first aid kits and medical personnel should all be known. In the event of a mortar attack you will have little to no warning, so you should know how to react as second nature, without panic or confusion. As mentioned, the risk of casualties is low, but if individuals are prepared and ready to react the risk will be even lower.
John F Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British private security firm working in Iraq since before 2003. Further details on the company can be found at www.akegroup.com/iraq
You can also follow John on twitter at www.twitter.com/johnfdrake