Embassy exercises seen as signal of imminent US operation in Iraq
BAGHDAD – Intelligence sources revealed to The Arab Weekly on Sunday that combat units inside the US Embassy in the Green Zone in central Baghdad have been carrying out exercises with live ammunition over three days, in an unusual procedure.
The sources said that Iraqi political and security institutions are examining this unusual move, without excluding that it could be a prelude to implementing decisions that US President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration is making during the final months of his mandate, which officially ends on January 20, 2021.
US forces in Iraq usually conduct military manoeuvres and exercises far from the sight of Iraqi civilians. But since attacks escalated against the US embassy in Baghdad, including with the use of Katyusha rockets, at the beginning of this year, US forces began conducting military manoeuvres inside the Green Zone in broad daylight, even testing an air defense system once and causing a startling explosion.
Observers believe the US is preparing for some type of mission in the final days of Trump’s term, which may range from a large-scale attack inside Iranian territory or operations targeting Iran’s foreign arms in Baghdad and Beirut.
These developments come as acting US Defence Secretary Christopher Miller reiterates his intention to withdraw the country’s forces from Afghanistan and the Middle East, as he believes that “the time has come to return to home.”
American recruits in Iraq circulated a copy of an internal memo prepared by Miller and sent to his auxiliary staff at the Pentagon, in which he confirmed that he was “tired of wars” and stressed the need to pull the US out of all conflicts it is involved in.
“Ending wars requires concessions and partnership. We took up the challenge. And we did everything we could. Now is the time to go home,” he said.
“But it is the critical phase where we transform our efforts from leadership to support,” he added.
Observers believe that Miller’s memo indicates Trump is committed to withdrawing US forces from Iraq, which is speculated to be the source of division between the president and senior military leaders, such as former Defence Secretary Mark Esper who was recently dismissed.
Likewise, some of America’s allies voiced concern at the prospect of a US departure, with Paris announcing its opposition to a US withdrawal of its forces from Iraq or Afghanistan.
“This should not be done (withdrawal from Afghanistan), in our opinion,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a visit of the US secretary of state to Paris. “This should not be done in Iraq either,” the French minister added.
For the Iraqi government, news of a possible withdrawal of US forces or the closure of the US Embassy could constitute a nightmare, adding to the state’s uncertainty about its ability to contain the danger of Iran-backed militias, which are growing more powerful day by the day.
It is widely believed in Iraq that without the help of the United States, Iran could expand its control over Iraq’s foreign and internal policies by enabling its affiliated militias to tighten their grip on vital joints of the Iraqi state.
In Baghdad, questions are increasingly being raised about the intentions of the US administration during the last days of Trump’s mandate.
Iraqi sources say that there are indications that Trump may rush in the last days of his term to go through with what he has been hinting at for years — large-scale military operations against Iran or its arms in the Middle East region, or both.
The Iraqi government, which has been closely following the statements and actions of the Trump administration in the last weeks of its mandate, believes it is possible that Washington will close the US Embassy in Baghdad during the next few weeks.
Observers argue that closing the embassy could come as part of arrangements to contain any Iranian military response to possible US attacks.
Other observers believe that the closure of the embassy could also be a punitive measure against Iraq, which the Trump administration may believe was not doing enough to get out of Tehran’s mantle.
Amid the flurry of speculation, Iraqi intelligence sources say that leaders of Iran-backed militias have recently taken new precautionary measures, for fear of being exposed to liquidations, missile attacks, or targeted drone assassinations, similar to those that targeted Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis near Baghdad airport at the beginning of this year.
As for Iran, the best scenario is for the Trump administration to withdraw its forces from Iraq, leaving the arena free for it and its proxies to expand their control.
Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said on Sunday that the complete departure of US forces from the region is “one of the most key factors to achieve regional peace.”
During a meeting in Tehran, Shamkhani reminded Iraqi Defense Minister Juma Inad of “the decision of the Iraqi parliament calling for the departure of US forces from Iraq.”
This came as the international coalition against ISIS led by the United States revealed that there are about 3,000 remaining US forces in Iraq. This means the withdrawal process has already begun, as the number of members of those forces was estimated at more than 5,000 as of 2019.
The official Iraqi News Agency quoted a spokesman for the international coalition, Colonel Wayne Marto, as saying that “the Iraqi forces have proven their success in fighting terrorism, and have achieved great victories in difficult places in terms of terrain, ” noting that “the repositioning of the coalition forces was due to the handover of some bases to the Iraqi side.”
As for the Shia militias in Iraq and their leaders, the reduction in American forces in Iraq does not mean the risk of them being subjected to painful American strikes has disappeared.
While the US Army relies on its qualitative capabilities and overwhelming airpower superiority that includes an advanced system of helicopters, jet aircraft and drones, the militias, including those within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), are heavily deployed on the ground but without air cover, making them an easy target for Americans.
Besides, the reduction in American forces in Iraq could help the US Army consolidate its positions in some highly fortified sites. This would make it near impossible for the militias to target them if there were a need for a response to potential American strikes.
The US diplomatic mission in Iraq is the only weak point that militias can target when seeking revenge on the US administration.
These factors could explain the unusual defence training of the US Embassy protection forces inside the Green Zone.
Iraqi sources previously confirmed that the Trump administration could resort to closing the embassy and withdrawing administrators and diplomats before taking any military action against Iran and its proxies in Iraq and the region.