Iraq new flashpoint for US-Iran tensions, troop buildup mulled

Iraqi militia leaders slapped with US sanctions.
Sunday 08/12/2019
US Army soldiers stand outside an armoured vehicle at a base south of Mosul, Iraq, February 23. (AP)
US Army soldiers stand outside an armoured vehicle at a base south of Mosul, Iraq, February 23. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Tensions between the United States and Iran flared as missiles hit military bases hosting US troops in Iraq. Washington said it was considering the deployment of additional forces to the Gulf region to defend against attacks by Iranian forces.

Iraq is quickly developing as a potential flashpoint between the United States and Iran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on Iraqi militia leaders Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali and Hussein Aziz al-Lami, who are from pro-Iran paramilitary force Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.

"The Iraqi people want their country back," he said in a statement December 6.

Two Katyusha rockets hit Balad Airbase north of Baghdad December 5 without causing damage or casualties. US officials said they suspected Iran of being behind the attack. "We're waiting for full evidence but if past is prologue then there's a good chance that Iran was behind it," said David Schenker, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

The Trump administration said it is concerned about attacks on bases where some 5,200 US troops are deployed to help Iraqi forces ensure jihadists do not regroup. The attacks, targeting either bases or the US Embassy in Baghdad, have averaged more than one per week the past six weeks.

“There is a spike in rocket attacks,” a US official told Agence France-Presse, adding that, although they had caused no US casualties and little damage, they were increasingly worrying.

US President Donald Trump vowed to respond “strongly” to any threat from Iran against US interests.

Five rockets hit Ain Assad Airbase on December 3, four days after US Vice-President Mike Pence visited troops there. Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shia faction close to Tehran and blacklisted by Washington, was responsible.

Senior military sources in Baghdad told a special correspondent for The Arab Weekly that the missile attacks might have been in retaliation for US military operations on Iraqi territory against militias loyal to Iran. The sources said one of the US operations, carried out November 26, resulted in casualties among the pro-Iran group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah Airbase in northern Iraq in November, one of the largest attacks in recent months to hit an area where US troops are based.

Shortly before the attack on Balad, a senior Pentagon official spoke of signs of “Iranian aggression.”

“We also continue to see indications, and for obvious reasons I won’t go into the details, that potential Iranian aggression could occur,” John Rood, US under-secretary of defence for policy, said.

Testifying before the US Congress, Rood said the United States was “observing Iran’s behaviour with concern.”

US officials were said to be considering the dispatching of 5,000-7,000 troops to the Middle East, although US Defence Secretary Mark Esper denied that a 14,000-strong deployment was under examination.

Retired US Army General Joseph Votel, the former commander of US Central Command, which deals with the Iran file, wrote in an analysis for the Middle East Institute: “I assess that the Iranian threat is a real one -- that they are pursuing both through use of proxies and through improved military capability."

“We must take it seriously. I further assess we need to defend our interests with military capability that demonstrates our resolve and which can hold Iran at risk,” Votel said.

He warned that “the big challenge in the Gulf, from my perspective, is always miscalculation."

Votel’s warning of “miscalculation” came as Brian Hook, the United States' point man on Iran, accused Tehran of mass murder during the latest wave of protests that started November 15.

“It appears the regime could have murdered over 1,000 Iranian citizens since the protests began,” Hook said.