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3 Different Points in Dynamic of US-Iraq-Iran Relations

NY Times: Pentagon Order to Plan for Escalation in Iraq Meets Warning From Top Commander

A secret Pentagon directive orders planning to try to destroy a militia group backed by Iran, but America’s top general in Iraq cautions of the risks.

By Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, March 27, 2020

American military vehicles at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in January. A new military campaign in Iraq could require thousands more troops.
American military vehicles at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in January. A new military campaign in Iraq could require thousands more troops.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops.

But the United States’ top commander in Iraq has warned that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran. In a blunt memo last week, the commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American troops be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the primary American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to combat the Islamic State.

The Pentagon directive and General White’s response — both classified internal military communications — were described by several American officials with direct knowledge of their contents. The exchange comes amid a simmering fight inside the Trump administration over policy toward Iran and the course of America’s war in Iraq, which began just over 17 years ago.CORONAVIRUS CRISISAs Iran reels over the coronavirus, top Trump administration aides are clashing over how to confront Iran and its Shiite military proxies in Iraq.

Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.

Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been wary of a sharp military escalation, warning it could further destabilize the Middle East at a time when President Trump has said he hopes to reduce the number of American troops in the region.

Still, American officials said Mr. Esper authorized planning for a new campaign inside Iraq — even as the military reduces its counterterrorism presence there — to provide options for Mr. Trump in the event that Iranian-backed militia groups escalate their own attacks against American troops, said two senior administration officials.

During an Oval Office meeting on March 19, Mr. Trump did not make a decision about whether he might authorize the new campaign in Iraq, but allowed the planning to continue, according to American officials.

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment. Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement: “Operation Inherent Resolve is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and remains focused on partnering with Iraqi security forces for the shared goal of permanently defeating ISIS remnants. We are not going to discuss hypotheticals or internal deliberations.”

The debate is happening as top Pentagon officials and senior commanders worldwide are also expressing growing concerns about coronavirus cases expanding rapidly in the ranks, potentially threatening the military’s ability to field combat-ready troops.

Several American officials said they were struck by the blunt tone of General White’s memorandum — sent on March 16, the day after he received the Pentagon directive to start the planning — which they said emphasized the costs and risks against an effort to try to destroy the militia group, known as Kataib Hezbollah.

The memo also pointed out that such a campaign might run afoul of the current agreement with the Iraqi government that allows American troops to operate in the country.

Iran’s leadership has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Iran’s leadership has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.Credit…Iranian President’s Office/EPA, via Shutterstock

Beyond that, it would most likely put the Iraqi leadership and especially its military in the position of having to choose between its American allies — whose leaders are far away — and the Iranians, whom many senior Iraqis do not like but believe they have to live with because they are neighbors.

“Iraq cannot be a victim of the Iranian-U.S. conflict, because that would end up going in favor of Iran,” said Karim al-Nuri, a senior figure in the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed militia, meaning that it would force Iraq closer to Iran.

Iran has long used Shiite militia groups in Iraq as proxy forces both to battle American and Iraqi troops and to exert political influence inside the government. Like Lebanese Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah has both military components and political operations, and links to Iraq politicians, businesses, charities and a web of other networks, several regional specialists said.

“It’s like a shadow state,” said Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has studied the group for more than a decade.Sign up to receive our daily Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide with the latest developments and expert advice.Sign Up

As a result, carrying out any large-scale plan to destroy Kataib Hezbollah poses huge political and security risks for the Trump administration, and practical challenges for the military.

It would also strain already frayed relations with Iraq’s weak central government. In January, members of Iraq’s Parliament called for the ouster of all U.S. troops in the country after the American drone strike at Baghdad’s international airport that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian commander, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the de facto leader of Iraq’s militia groups.

Several top American officials, including Mr. Pompeo and General Milley, have urged the Iraqi security forces to crack down on rogue Shiite militia groups that are attacking American troops, or else the United States will be forced to retaliate.

The Pentagon directive ordered planners at the military’s Central Command and in Iraq to draw up a strategy to dismantle the militia group’s operations, according to several American officials who saw the order or were briefed on it. The directive said that Iranian paramilitary forces — members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — could be legitimate targets if they are located with the Kataib Hezbollah fighters.

Kataib Hezbollah rocket attacks killed two American troops and one British soldier at a military base this month — prompting a reprisal strike by American warplanes one day later.

Even so, American officials said there was no firm evidence that Iran ordered the attack by the militia group. But Mr. Pompeo and other senior officials in recent weeks have argued for aggressive military action not only against Kataib Hezbollah but also against Iranian military forces.

During a White House meeting on March 12, Mr. Esper and General Milley argued for a more limited response to the rocket attacks — a view that prevailed on Mr. Trump, who ordered nighttime raids on five suspected weapons depots in Iraq used by Kataib Hezbollah.

Several American officials said there was an increased urgency in planning attack options against Kataib Hezbollah as the group, perhaps along with other Shiite militias, has threatened to ramp up strikes against U.S. troops stationed on Iraqi bases after the celebrations for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, end soon. American military intelligence agencies have detected signs that big attacks could be in the works, according to a senior U.S. military official who has been briefed on some of the contingency planning in Iraq.

Kataib Hezbollah, in a statement on Wednesday, warned its fighters to prepare for possible attacks from the United States, and threatened to retaliate against Americans and any Iraqis who help them. “We will respond with full force to all their military, security, and economic facilities,” said the statement, according to SITE, a private company that monitors jihadists’ websites and postings.

The immediate targets of a Pentagon campaign against Kataib Hezbollah most likely would be the group’s leadership, bases and weapons depots, Mr. Knights said. In addition to a vast array of rockets, the group is believed to have access to a hidden arsenal ofshort-range ballistic missiles funneled into Iraq by Iran over the past several months, according to American intelligence and military officials.

An extended campaign could hit militia targets across a wide swath of Iraq and Syria, and possibly other Shiite militias in Iraq that are loosely aligned with Kataib Hezbollah. “You can’t just hit rank-and-file fighters, you’d have to hit leadership, most of whom have probably dispersed,” Mr. Knights said.

A funeral procession for members of Kataib Hezbollah who were killed in American airstrikes in Iraq last December.
A funeral procession for members of Kataib Hezbollah who were killed in American airstrikes in Iraq last December.Credit…Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

At the same time, American officials said the risks laid out in General White’s memo are genuine, and some military planners believe it would be foolish for the Trump administration to escalate military operations inside Iraq anytime soon.

More than 5,000 American troops are currently stationed in Iraq, most of them part of the mission to train and advise Iraqi security forces in the mission against the Islamic State. Pentagon officials had been seeking to reduce that presence to about 2,500 troops in the coming months.

Any campaign against Kataib Hezbollah is likely to draw from the roughly 70,000 American military personnel currently deployed around the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations. More than 14,000 of those troops have moved into the region since last May amid rising tensions with Iran.

The Pentagon has also sent Patriot air and missile defense batteries, B-52 bombers, a carrier strike group, armed Reaper drones and other engineering and support personnel.

Commanders are still rushing more Patriot antimissile batteries and other weaponry into Iraq, but are still a week or two away from having the additional defensive systems in place there, a senior U.S. military official said.

In recent weeks, as the threat from militia attacks and exposure to the coronavirus has increased, the United States and its European allies have been turning over smaller coalition bases to their Iraqi counterparts, and either moving to a handful of larger Iraqi bases or leaving the country altogether.

Speaking to reporters the day after the United States hit the five Khatib Hezbollah weapons depots this month, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of Central Command, said that the threat from Iran and its proxies remained “very high” and added that tensions “have actually not gone down” since the United States killed General Suleimani.

While American officials say they have no clear evidence that Iran specifically directed the deadly attack on Camp Taji on March 11, they say that Kataib Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force coordinate closely.

General McKenzie said the United States was poised to strike additional militia weapons storage sites and other targets should attacks against American forces continue. He blamed Kataib Hezbollah for about a dozen rocket attacks against American troops based in Iraq in the past six months.

Mr. Esper suggested on Wednesday that the United States could respond further to the militia’s rocket attacks, but offered no details.

“You don’t get to kill or wound Americans and get away with it,” Mr. Esper said in an interview with NPR. “We will respond at the time, place and manner of our choosing. We will hold them accountable.”

Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Baghdad.

The PROGRESSIVE: Foreign Correspondent: U.S. Beats War Drums in Middle East

by Reese Erlich, March 26, 2020

Leaders in Washington and Tehran say they don’t want a full-scale war, but they are playing a dangerous game.

While the world focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, tensions between the United States and Iran are heating up. The two countries are engaging in tit-for-tat military attacks that threaten a wider war. In mid-March, Washington officials accused an Iran-allied militia of launching rockets at a U.S. military base in Iraq, killing two American soldiers and one British soldier. The Pentagon retaliated with a missile strike against the group Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, killing militiamen, five Iraqi servicemen, and a civilian who were also at the base. On March 26 rockets once again hit near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The Pentagon sent two aircraft carriers to the region, claiming in a March 19 Navy statement that the United States is protecting “freedom of navigation and [the] free flow of commerce.” Threatening a possible military attack on Iran, the Navy said the carriers “provide the combatant commander significant striking power for contingency operations.”  

Leaders in Washington and Tehran say they don’t want a full-scale war, but they are playing a dangerous game. And the people of Iraq will suffer the consequences.

“Iraq has become a proxy war between the United States and Iran,” says Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C., in a phone interview. “Iraq is paying in blood and treasure.”

In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear accord with Iran and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. Iran waited a year to see if the European signatories to the accord—Britain, France, and Germany—would live up to the agreement by engaging in normal trade and investment. The Europeans knuckled under to Trump, so Iran decided to slam down its fist.

By mid-2019, oil tankers from U.S.-allied countries came under attack. Iran seized a U.K. tanker and shot down a U.S. drone. Iran also pulled back from some provisions of the nuclear accord.

At the end of 2019, Iran-allied militias launched rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. Washington portrays these militias as tools of Iran. Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah do receive arms and training from Iran, but they are also now part of the Iraqi army.

The United States picks its favorites within the Iraqi military as well, arming and training Kurdish militias and Iraqi army special forces.

Kataib Hezbollah and similar Iran-allied militias initially bore the brunt of fighting ISIS, according to Patrick Theros, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and now a strategic advisor to the Gulf International think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The militias are not Iranian controlled,” Theros tells me in a phone interview. “The Iranians can’t just send an order and be confident it will be obeyed.”

But the Trump Administration acts as if the militias are extensions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as seen in the January 3 assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleinmani and Iraqi militia head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Those assassinations were a huge mistake, according to Nader Talebzadeh, an analyst and influential TV host in Iran. “What the American President did was unify the Iranian people and took things to a different level,” he tells me in an interview.

Ordinary Iraqis were even more outraged at the murder of al-Muhandis, who was an extremely popular leader in the fight against ISIS, according to Theros.

“We’re killing Iraqis, not Iranians,” Theros says. “That affects the attitudes toward us.”

The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Iraqi military leaders demanded that Washington get permission from top Iraqi leadership prior to launching another retaliatory raid.

Trump responded to these assertions of Iraqi sovereignty by threatening to impose harsh sanctions and seize Iraq’s central bank reserves held by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

“That makes us look like an occupying force,” Theros notes wryly.

Iraqis have plenty of legitimate complaints against their leaders in Tehran. Iranian troops entered Iraq to assist the fight against ISIS, but stayed to spread Iranian influence. Many resent Iran’s role in supporting brutal and corrupt Iraqi politicians.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in late 2019, protesting both the U.S. and Iranian presence. Demonstrators burned down two Iranian consulates. Ordinary Iraqis were furious at the lack of electricity, water, and widespread government corruption. Iranian-allied militias and government forces brutally suppressed the peaceful demonstrations, killing more than 600 people and injuring tens of thousands.

Nardin Baban, Dallas.JPG

Reese Erlich

Iraqis have grown more angry at continued U.S. troop presence.

The demonstrations forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi on March 1. Adnan al-Zurufi was appointed the new prime minister, but parliament must confirm him by mid-April. Al-Zurufi had lived in the United States for years and holds dual U.S./Iraqi citizenship. He returned to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and Washington installed him as governor of Najaf province.

Iraqi politicians are wheeling and dealing over al-Zurufi’s nomination. He has U.S. backing and is hoping for Iranian support as well.

The opposition street protestors see al-Zurufi as part of the old establishment they oppose, but their numbers have dwindled. While thousands had occupied Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the height of protests last year, only a few hundred remain today.

But Theros says the world shouldn’t write off Iraq’s protest movement. “Unless the government addresses the issues they were protesting, they will be back,” he says. “It’s gone dormant, but it’s not dead.”

Iran currently faces a series of crises: low international oil prices, major flooding in the south, and a spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Harsh, unilateral U.S. sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy but have not changed Iran’s policies in the region. Nor has U.S. military action.

Nevertheless, the Trump Administration is pressuring the new Iraqi prime minister to cut off imports of Iranian gas and electricity, in keeping with U.S. sanctions. For the moment, Washington has given Iraq waivers to allow trade to continue. Many Iraqis don’t like Iran but the economies of the two countries are deeply intertwined.

“They can’t do it,” Theros says. “They have no choice but to choose Iran over the United States.”

So the ball is in the United States’ court. Trump can continue his “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran and face continued Iraqi attacks on U.S. troops. Or he can back off to focus on domestic concerns and avoid a wider war.

Iranians can wait. They may yet see regime change in Washington this November, long before it comes to Tehran. 

CRISIS GROUP: The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran 

Originally published in Foreign Policy, 18 MARCH 2020

Washington and Tehran could use the public health emergency to show goodwill, dial down tensions while saving face, and avoid a dangerous confrontation.

If Iran’s leaders thought things couldn’t get worse, they were wrong. The country faces three simultaneous crises: a public health emergency that is worsening by the hour, tensions with the United States that have once again grown in the past few days, and an economic picture that could go from troubled to dire in a matter of months.

The confluence of a coronavirus pandemic, security threats, and financial troubles has deepened the political system’s legitimacy crisis in the wake of last month’s parliamentary elections that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Washington might view this as a validation of its so-called maximum pressure strategy against Tehran, but if it fails to capitalize on this moment to de-escalate tensions and lay the groundwork for a mutually beneficial diplomatic settlement, the leadership in Tehran is likely to become more aggressive in the region, increasing the risk of a conflict that neither side appears to want.

Since the dramatic escalations of late 2019 and early 2020, which culminated in the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Suleimani and Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces, both Iran and the United States appeared content to return to their respective corners.

But there has been a steady stream of incidents in Iraq, with at least seven attacks near U.S. diplomatic facilities inside Baghdad’s Green Zone and U.S. military installations in Iraq throughout January and February. These attacks spiked on March 11 following a barrage of rockets that killed three members of the U.S.-led coalition, including two Americans, and injured more than a dozen others at an Iraqi army base, Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper subsequently assessed that “Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups” were responsible. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned ­that “those responsible must be held accountable.” A day later, the United States retaliated against an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in Iraq, which in turn fired more rockets into Camp Taji on March 14 and again on March 17. The impact of the rapidly spreading disease and collapse in oil prices will likely present almost unprecedented challenges to an economy that is already beset by government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions.  

This latest moment of peril is playing out against the backdrop of a dramatic COVID-19 outbreak in Iran, which has the third-highest number of confirmed cases and fatalities anywhere in the world. The Iranian government was slow in responding to the outbreak; and when it finally realized its scale and scope, Tehran was hampered by shortages caused by sanctions. Moreover, the government has kept a worryingly tight grip on the information flow to save face, prompting fears that the death toll—currently listed as 988—is probably much higher than the official figures suggest.

With Tehran’s initial response being dismissive of the risks of the virus’s spread and slow to mobilize against it, the government is now pleading for international assistance. Having already scored several calamitous own goals in recent months—raising fuel prices with little warning in November 2019, then violently suppressing subsequent protests, and in January downing a Ukrainian civilian airliner in the apparent belief it was an incoming U.S. missile—the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis could increase the population’s sense that its leadership is incompetent.

Meanwhile, the impact of the rapidly spreading disease and collapse in oil prices will likely present almost unprecedented challenges to an economy that is already beset by government mismanagement and under siege from U.S. sanctions.

One Iranian official calculated a drop of 18 percent in trade as a result of the pandemic—and that was before Iraq, a key regional trade partner, announced a full closure of the two countries’ common land borders and the price of crude tumbled below $30 per barrel. (While Iran’s exports have been blocked by the United States since April 2019, it has continued to make sales to China, albeit at sharply reduced levels.) The combination of reduced regional trade, evaporation of remaining oil revenue, and COVID-19’s impact on domestic business could prove catastrophic.

But that doesn’t mean that Tehran will bow to U.S. pressure and back down. Indeed, since May 2019, when the Iranian government chose to counter U.S. maximum pressure with a blend of nuclear and regional provocations, the system’s hard-liners have contended that high-risk brinkmanship yields greater dividends than restraint. Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction.  

The coronavirus outbreak has now put more pressure on the leadership’s calculus. Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction. This is also the view of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, who told Congress on March 10 that the outbreak “probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”

With U.S. President Donald Trump focused on the domestic economic and electoral effects of the coronavirus and the Iranian leadership highly reluctant to display any weakness to the United States, neither side is likely in the mood to engage the other.

That would be a missed opportunity. Indeed, both Washington and Tehran have floated ideas that, if acted upon, could break the current vicious cycle. Pompeo has urged the Iranian government—which furloughed tens of thousands of convicts due to fears of an epidemic in prisons—to free U.S. prisoners and other dual and foreign nationals on humanitarian grounds. The death of any of those inmates from COVID-19 would be a stain Iran might find hard to erase.

Conversely, Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding and a substantial list of essential equipment ranging from gloves and masks to portable respiration and X-ray machines. If the Trump administration stands in the way of such basic needs—by voting against an IMF loan to Iran—the United States would find it hard to overcome the impression that it had acted inhumanely. The most logical and mutually beneficial outcome would be a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation.  

The most logical and mutually beneficial outcome would be a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation. Iran would need to first agree to furlough all detained foreigners as the U.S. facilitates the transfer of medicine and medical equipment Iran needs to contain the outbreak and save lives without any sanctions-related delays.

In the second phase, the U.S. government could agree not to block the IMF loan to Iran while Tehran freezes its nuclear escalation and reins in its allied groups in Iraq, preventing any further attacks on U.S. forces and assets. This phase could also comprise another prisoner swap, either on par with the one-for-one exchange that happened back in December or, even better, a broader exchange of prisoners. This would be a win-win: putting tensions with Iran on ice, providing Trump with another success in his efforts to free Americans detained abroad, and providing Tehran with some economic reprieve and the means to save lives at home.

Since 2018, when the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington and Tehran have been on a collision course pitting unrealistic U.S. demands against Iranian inflexibility. For either side to let a possible diplomatic off-ramp pass by would mean that a dangerous and deadly situation might again take a turn for the worse.

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