Iranian-supplied rockets killed as many as 15 U.S. troops per month in Iraq in the summer of 2011, and Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis had a plan to retaliate. The Obama administration denied his request.
Six U.S. soldiers were killed in a single such attack in early June of 2011, with another three killed just weeks later. Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, had had enough and decided the U.S. must strike back before the Iranian rockets caused further bloodshed. In conjunction with then Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, Mattis proposed a strike inside Iranian territory, according to former senior U.S. officials speaking to the Washington Post.
The plan was to make it clear to the the Iranian government that providing rockets to its Shiite proxy insurgents inside Iraq was no longer going to be tolerated. Mattis suggested a nighttime strike against a power plant or oil refinery within Iranian territory.
The White House received the strike proposal and subsequently denied it. President Barack Obama was under the impression such a strike would infuriate the Iranians, possibly escalating the Iraqi occupation he was trying so desperately to end. Many White House staffers feared the plan risked starting a war with Iran, a country Obama wanted to seek a detente with.
“There were clearly White House staff who thought the recommendations he was making were too aggressive,” Leon Panetta, who was secretary of defense at the time, told the Post. “But I thought a lot of that was, frankly, not having the maturity to look at all of the options that a president should look at in order to make the right decisions.”
Iran was a primary backer of the Shiite insurgency in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. In addition to rockets, Iran supplied its proxies with deadly explosively formed penetrators — a version of an improvised explosive device designed specifically to tear through U.S. armored vehicles.
Iran’s Quds Force, a branch of the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is believed to have supplied many of the weapons used by Iraqi insurgents. Some reports suggest the group’s leader, the infamous Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was responsible for more than 500 U.S. deaths in Iraq due to his support of the insurgents.
Obama had reason to deny the strike request, though Mattis probably did not know it. At the time, the Obama administration was secretly negotiating with Iran on its rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program. A direct strike on Iranian territory would likely scuttle the secret talks. Approximately 54 U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq in 2011, while the secret talks Iran would eventually fall apart, regardless of the strike.