Iran and US preparing for new round of conflict in Iraq

The US-led Coalition has been repositioning forces in the last weeks, handing over several key posts, and training of Iraqi forces is temporarily wrapping up.

A US soldier runs at a coalition forces forward base near West Mosul, Iraq June 21, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A US soldier runs at a coalition forces forward base near West Mosul, Iraq June 21, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reports indicate that Iran, the US and Iranian proxies are all preparing for a conflict in Iraq after a year of rising tensions, rocket attacks and airstrikes.
The US-led Coalition has been repositioning forces in the last weeks, handing over several key posts, and the training of Iraqi forces is temporarily wrapping up. Several European powers that contributed to the Coalition seem to be bringing forces home due to the pandemic.
What is left in Iraq amid the tensions look like two boxers in the ring waiting to see what happens next.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Pentagon had drawn up “secret plans to escalate combat in Iraq against Iranian-backed militia.”
But the plan is no longer “secret” and it turns out that commanders may have opposed the concept. Some want a showdown with Iran.
Since last May tensions grew between the US and Iran in the Middle East. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned at the time about Iranian plans against the US in Iraq.
Iran’s role in Iraq is complex and multi-layered, but it mainly consists of Iranian-backed militias called 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 and often have their own theological underpinning with figures like Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s Qais Khazali leading them. They are usually rooted in the Islamic  Revolutionary Guard Corps, where  their leaders, like Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Organization, served in the 1980s  alongside Iran.
The US assassinated Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy of the PMU and head of Kataib Hezbollah in January. He was involved in rocket attacks throughout 2019 against US forces on bases in Iraq. US State Department assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker warned Iran against these proxy attacks in December.
He made similar warnings in February. Iran’s proxies killed a US contractor in December near Kirkuk, and the US responded with airstrikes at  five locations in Syria and Iraq. On March 11, three members of the Coalition, two of them American, were killed by another rocket attack on Taji base. The US struck  five more locations, mostly warehouses linked to the PMU, in Iraq in retaliation.
It is important to remember the US also killed IRGC Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani in early January, leading to an Iranian ballistic missile attack on two bases where US forces are located in Iraq.
Add to this picture the Iranian attacks on ships in May and June in the Gulf of Oman, the September attack on Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s other attacks on Saudi Arabia using proxies, and the wider picture is of a growing conflict.
But Iran is also facing a pandemic and has less resources now to confront both the US and the coronavirus. US Senator Jim Inhofe visited 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.” We know this because Iran asked Hezbollah to send Mohammad al-Kawtharani to Iraq to help unify the PMU after Soleimani and Muhandis were hit. Other PMU leaders went to Qom in January and Iran sent Ali Shamkhani of its Supreme National Security Council  to Iraq on March 9.
It is in this context that the US apparently pushed plans to attack 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.
The US was already moving forces in Iraq, consolidating areas it works in and withdrawing from exposed posts at Qaim and Q-West. Officially this was due to the pandemic, but it may have been to reduce the potential targets available to Kataib Hezbollah in case of escalation. There is reticence in the US for deploying more troops to Iraq and the current numbers are thought to be around 5,000 or so. That isn’t enough for a major campaign against the PMU, who number some 100,000. Combined with airpower it s surely more than enough to destroy Kataib Hezbollah, at least temporarily.
We know, according to the Times report, that 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 notes. This appears profoundly defensive or deterrence oriented. Questions about the plan allegedly came from Lt. Gen. Robert “Pat” White.
This makes sense because White had just commended the Coalition for the one-year anniversary of the defeat of ISIS in Baghouz on March 23. The US wants ISIS to remain defeated. The problem for the US-led Coalition has always been that its mandate is to fight ISIS. However those in Washington have pushed for mission creep 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.
US commanders are clear to say to the Iraqis that their mission in Iraq didn’t change. They are in Iraq to fight ISIS at the invitation of Baghdad. But statements from Washington and airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah are being used by Amiri and Muqtada al-Sadr, leading of the largest political party in Iraq, to push for the US to leave. The militias have supported removing the US for years. Khazali, and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba’s Akram al-Kaabi all have put out statements urging Iraq to evict the Americans. This is why the 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 report appears to show that there are different messages and power plays at work. It is entirely normal the US would plan for defensive retaliation in case Iranian-backed proxies escalate. Whether that planning means going beyond the normal airstrikes into a more wide-ranging campaign appears to be a question. 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, a journalist knowledgeable of  these issues, 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.”
Iran’s proxies are also smart enough not to give the US an excuse. 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 is the usual model of groups that want to give Iran plausible deniability behind attacks. It is the same method Hezbollah uses in Lebanon, maintaining its own militia and a party in parliament. In Iraq the PMU has a problem because it is more like the IRGC, a state institution. So it needs a new group that can be a stand-in for Kataib Hezbollah.
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. On cue 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 on March 26. Rockets had just 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.
Everyone is ready now in Iraq. Kataib Hezbollah has conducted a drill to fight the Americans. They trained to fight the US in rural areas, cities and to stop a US air assault. Several brigades of the PMU participated in the drill. The absence of people on the streets due to the coronavirus curfews adds to the equations of any escalation. Iranian-backed proxies can’t disguise their movements as easily if there is a curfew. Iran has allegedly trafficked ballistic missiles to Iraq in 2018 and 2019, for instance.
The proxies disguise rocket launchers in trucks and vans or hide them in buildings. The US consolidation makes Americans harder targets. But the larger calculation is in Tehran and Washington. Some in the Pentagon, and the US public, are wary of a new round of escalation in Iraq. Iran likely also must weigh escalation against merely doing nothing and letting the US slowly withdraw. Those are the calculations today that link  rising tensions in Iraq to larger regional and global issues.