New tensions in Iraq: The Coalition, the Pentagon, Kataib Hezbollah and Tehran
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Kataib Hezbollah warned on March 26 that the US is involved in "suspicious" activity in Iraq. It contrasted the threat of the coronavirus pandemic with new US activity. Iranian media reported that there was information that "indicates a plot to conduct military aggression against some Iraqi security apparatus, Hashd al-Sha’abi, and Islamic Resistance. A number of Iraqi security and military organizations are also involved in this plot. This move will jeopardize Iraq's basic infrastructure and domestic peace." Numerous social media accounts linked to pro-Iranian positions asserted the US was planning a "coup."
At the same time a New York Times report indicates the US has prepared for the possibility of escalation in Iraq. Iran and its proxies interpret this as confirmation of their view that a "plot" is afoot. Iran's Press TV reported that "American officials said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for an aggressive action against Iraqi resistance groups, while Pentagon chief Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been wary of a sharp military escalation." In addition The Washington Post claims "Militia attacks on Americans in Iraq are becoming more audacious. The U.S. is wrestling with how to respond." Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, who has warned Iranian proxies, says Washington will “take what steps that we see necessary” to retaliate for attacks.
Beyond the headlines: Changes on the ground
The US is repositioning forces in Iraq, leaving a post near Qaim on the Syrian border and also leaving Q-West airbase. The US-led Coalition noted on March 20: "As a result of the success of ISF in their fight against ISIS, the Coalition is repositioning troops from a few smaller bases. These bases remain under Iraqi control and we will continue our advising partnership for the permanent defeat of Daesh from other Iraqi military bases, providing much-needed specialist support.To prevent potential spread of COVID-19, the Iraqi Security Forces have suspended all training."
Kataib Hezbollah interpreted the US moves as threats. It launched its own drill, claiming to prepare to confront the US, including training to fight in cities, rural areas and also against an "air assault." KH said "We spotted suspicious American [military] movements...It is necessary for the mujahids to prepare with the needed manpower and gear to tackle what the enemy intends."
Several European powers that contributed to the Coalition seem to be bringing forces home due to the pandemic. The UK has withdrawn forces, France and Czech Republic as well. Pro-Iranian social media are watching these moves closely.
The PMU and the US
The NYT report and the KH "drill" come amid these changes on the ground. The March 27 report over the weekend that the Pentagon had drawn up “secret plans to escalate combat in Iraq against Iranian-backed militia,” is being read in Iran and Iraq. It comes in the context of tensions since May 2019. At the time US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq on a surprise visit on May 7 to warn of impending Iranian attacks. The attacks came in the Gulf of Oman and also involved rocket attacks in Iraq that rose throughout 2019. There were airstrikes, which Iraq blamed on Israel, on warehouses of the Popular Mobilization Units in July and August. KH allegedly attacked Saudi Arabia from Iraq as well and began to fire rockets at bases where US forces were located. This was already known on May 20, 2019.
At the center of the US-Iran tensions in Iraq are the Popular Mobilization Units. These units are part of the security forces and are called the Hashd al-Shaabi. They also have political parties, such as the Fatah Alliance. Some have been sanctioned by the US, including Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Key leaders such as Abu Mahdi al-MMuhandis had been sanctioned for years.
The US killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy of the PMU and head of Kataib Hezbollah in January, along with IRGC head Qasem Soleimani. Muhandis and Soleimani had been responsible for attacks on US forces in Iraq, and the storming of the embassy in late December. A US contractor had been killed near Kirkuk and the US launched airstrikes in retaliation. US State Department Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker warned Iran against these proxy attacks in December 2019. He made similar warnings in February. This did not deter Iran. Instead Iran asked Hezbollah to send Mohammad al-Kawtharani to help unify the PMU in Iraq after Soleimani and Muhandis were killed. Other PMU leaders and Muqtada al-Sadr went to Qom in January and Iran sent Ali Shamkhani of its Supreme National Security Council to Iraq on March 9. Two days later rockets hit Camp Taji, killing two Americans and one Briton. The US struck five more locations, mostly warehouses linked to the PMU, in Iraq in retaliation. The US considered strikes on a broad list of targets, among them sites linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran and Syria, but decided on a smaller approach.
However the US change in strategy comes amid a debate about how effective the January strike on Soleimani and Muhandis was. US Senator Jim Inhofe visited Iraq and US General Pat White in February and came away from the meeting assured that the strike on Soleimani was the right call and Iran’s activities were “seriously disrupted.” The attacks in March, on Taji and aimed at the Green Zone, may illustrate that the proxies are not deterred. “Designated U.S. Government employees” were ordered to depart the US embassy on March 26. Two rockets hit not far from an operations center that coordinates Iraqi security forces, according to reports.
The Pentagon prepares for escalation
It is in this context that the US apparently pushed plans to confront Kataib Hezbollah, either in retaliation or pre-emptively. Critics say these plans were pushed by Pompeo and the National Security Council. Was the planned campaign merely defensive? Kataib Hezbollah has been putting up videos claiming it will target the US with snipers and RPGs as it did in the early 2000s.
Lt. Gen. White, according to the NYT, wrote a memo in which he advised the Pentagon against the plans, asserting that it would divert resources from fighting ISIS and risk jeopardizing agreements with the Iraqi government that enable US troops to operate in the country. US generals, including former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had expressed concern in the past that escalation with Iran would lead to targeting of US forces or closure of Iraq's airspace to US UAVs and other repercussions. This had occurred after the July-August airstrikes Iraq blamed on Israel.
According to the ‘Times’ report, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper authorized the planning for a “new campaign inside Iraq.” It was to provide options for US President Donald Trump “in the event that Iranian-backed militia groups escalate,” the report noted. White had just commended the Coalition for the one-year anniversary of the defeat of ISIS in Baghouz on March 23. "Due to the tremendous sacrifice, strength, and success of the Iraqi Security Forces, Syrian Democratic Forces, and Coalition personnel – and as a measure of our collective success – we have reached a point in the campaign where our partners are taking the fight to the remnants of Daesh independently and preventing Daesh’s resurgence. As a result, the Coalition will consolidate to fewer bases with fewer people and remains committed to supporting our partners ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh."
The US wants ISIS to remain defeated. The problem for the US-led Coalition has always been that its mandate is to fight ISIS. Lead Inspector General Reports at the DoD have noted that there is no mandate to confront Iran. However Washington has pushed for mission changes in both Iraq and Syria in the wake of the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Some proposed using the US presence in Syria as a counterbalance to Iran’s role and to block Iran’s “road to the sea” via Syria. Others felt that Iraq could be used to “watch Iran,” as Trump said in 2018. The US withdrew from part of Syria in October 2019 and said it would concentrate on guarding oil wells. Reports indicate Iran, the Syrian regime and Russia would like to pressure the US in Syria and that Turkey would like to use oil revenues to rebuild areas it occupies.
US commanders in Iraq are clear to say to the Iraqis that their mission in Iraq didn’t change. Spokesman for the US-led Coalition Col. Myles Caggins stressed on March 26 that the US is in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq to defeat ISIS, “this is our only purpose. Period. We’re transferring bases,” he noted. Also hundreds of troops were temporarily departing.
The Iranian “axis of resistance,” says it is preparing to fight the Americans if they do anything. This includes the IRGC, the PMU, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups. “The coronavirus will not drop the alert,” Elijah Magnier notes, “no US base will be exempted from the response.” Elijah Magnier also tweeted on March 27 that Iran had informed the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which can pass the message to the US, that “any US military aggression against Iran will be met with a highly destructive response.”
After the US airstrikes on March 13 in retaliation for the Taji attack, a new group called Osbat al-Thaereen appeared on March 16. It claimed responsibility for an attack on Taji. This could give KH plausible deniability the way Hezbollah in Lebanon operates outside the government but also has members in parliament. The PMU faces challenges because it is an official paramilitary force. If it fights the US it is the Iraqi government fighting the US.
Groups linked to Iran have put up threatening videos (see one on March 22) and show off their plans (named 'hunting crows') to confront the US, while other groups such as Harakat Hezbollah pinpoint US forces and say the clock is ticking for the US to leave. The US says it detected threats on March 27. Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami said on March 27 that "the decision to launch a missile attack on Ain al-Asad base [on January 8] with two characteristics and a strategic decision to strike the #US base on Iraqi soil for the first time and to restore #Iran's deterrent power was a very important and tactical aspect."
A rumor of a coup
In order to confuse the Americans a new trend has emerged in Iraq. Not only was a new group established to take the heat from Kataib Hezbollah and the PMU, sources began to accuse the US of preparing a military coup. This comes in the context of Iraq’s president choosing a new Prime Minister designate named Adnan al-Zurufi. Mehr News in Iran says the US is moving toward a coup on March 27. Kataib Hezbollah then published photos of preparing to fight the Americans, claiming suspicious US activity. Anti-US voices in Iraq have rejected Zurufi, arguing that he worked closely with the US in the early 2000s. An Iraqi analyst Majid Jasim says the US is consolidating its positions, sending Patriot missiles to defend them from rocket attacks and not planning a coup. Yet the US is also evacuating non-essential staff from Iraq, a process in place since may 2019. The State Department seems to have ordered home even more personnel out on March 26. Rockets had hit near an “operations center that coordinates Iraqi security forces,” in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Stars and Stripes reported. And the US gave Iraq only 30 days to stop gas imports from Iran.
Iranian-backed proxies have been increasing rhetoric against the US for years, seeking to remove US forces from Iraq. It is in line with their historic attacks on US forces between 2004 and 2009. In 2019 rocket attacks increased and there were protests at the US embassy. US retaliation has struck at KH and PMU warehouses. Talk of a new plan leaves unclear what the US goal is. It is also unclear what the US timeline is and whether Kataib Hezbollah will escalate first.
US repositioning of forces consolidates US positions and makes them less vulnerable to attack. Iran, in the midst of a pandemic, may want to lash out. The curfews in Iraq make it easier to identify PMU movement. Removing trainers and moving forces to several bases also removes some of the forces that could be targeted by Iran. Removing remaining diplomatic personnel also aids this effort. The question is whether the US plan is defensive or pre-emptive and what US adversaries will do next.