Archive for January 1, 2020

Attack on US Embassy in Iraq shows Iran can still strike at American interests 

January 1, 2020

Source: Attack on US Embassy in Iraq shows Iran can still strike at American interests | The Times of Israel

Analysts say US airstrike on pro-Iran militias could turn focus of Iraq protests from anger at Tehran’s influence toward call for US troops to leave region

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. D (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. D (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The attack on the US Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militiamen Tuesday is a stark demonstration that Iran can still strike at American interests despite US President Donald Trump’s economic pressure campaign. Trump said Iran would be held “fully responsible” for the attack, but it was unclear whether that meant military retaliation.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” Trump tweeted later in the afternoon. He also thanked top Iraqi government leaders for their “rapid response upon request.”

The breach of the compound, which prompted the US to send military reinforcements but caused no known US casualties or evacuations, also revealed growing strains between Washington and Baghdad, raising questions about the future of the US military mission there. The US has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, mainly to train Iraqi forces and help them combat Islamic State extremists.

The breach followed American airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The US said those strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor and the wounding of American and Iraqi troops in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the US blamed on the militia. The American strikes angered the Iraqi government, which called them an unjustified violation of its sovereignty.

Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission even as the US reinforced the compound with Marines from Kuwait.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

….Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” he tweeted from his estate in Florida. “We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”

Even as Trump has argued for removing US troops from Mideast conflicts, he also has singled out Iran as a malign influence in the region. After withdrawing the US in 2018 from an international agreement that exchanged an easing of sanctions for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, Trump ratcheted up sanctions.

Those economic penalties, including a virtual shut-off of Iranian oil exports, are aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a broader nuclear deal. But critics say that pressure has pushed Iranian leaders into countering with a variety of military attacks in the Gulf.

Until Sunday’s US airstrikes, Trump had been measured in his response to Iranian provocations. In June, he abruptly called off US military strikes on Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of an American drone.

Fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction at their headquarters in the aftermath of a US airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, Monday, December 30, 2019. (AP Photo)

Robert Ford, a retired US diplomat who served five years in Baghdad and then became ambassador in Syria, said Iran’s allies in the Iraqi parliament may be able to harness any surge in anger among Iraqis toward the United States to force US troops to leave the country. Ford said Trump miscalculated by approving Sunday’s airstrikes on Kataeb Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria — strikes that drew a public rebuke from the Iraqi government and seem to have triggered Tuesday’s embassy attack.

“The Americans fell into the Iranian trap,” Ford said, with airstrikes that turned some Iraqi anger toward the US and away from Iran and the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

The tense situation in Baghdad appeared to upset Trump’s vacation routine in Florida, where he is spending the holidays.

Trump spent just under an hour at his private golf club in West Palm Beach before returning to his Mar-a-Lago resort in nearby Palm Beach. He had spent nearly six hours at his golf club on each of the previous two days. Trump spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and emphasized the need for Iraq to protect Americans and their facilities in the country, said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.

Trump is under pressure from some in Congress to take a hard-line approach to Iranian aggression, which the United States says included an unprecedented drone and missile attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in September. More recently, Iran-backed militias in Iraq have conducted numerous rocket attacks on bases hosting US forces.

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and supporter of Trump’s Iran policy, called the embassy breach “yet another reckless escalation” by Iran.

Tuesday’s attack was carried out by members of the Iran-supported Kataeb Hezbollah militia. Dozens of militiamen and their supporters smashed a main door to the compound and set fire to a reception area, but they did not enter the main buildings.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blamed Iran for the episode and faulted Trump for his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

“The results so far have been more threats against international commerce, emboldened and more violent proxy attacks across the Middle East, and now, the death of an American citizen in Iraq,” Menendez said, referring to the rocket attack last week.

By early evening Tuesday, the mob had retreated from the compound but set up several tents outside for an intended sit-in. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy’s concrete wall along with anti-US graffiti. American Apache helicopters flew overhead and dropped flares over the area in what the U.S. military called a “show of force.”

Smoke billows from the entrance of the US embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on December 31, 2019, after supporters and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi military network tried to break into the building, during a rally to vent anger over weekend air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

The US also was sending 100 or more additional Marines to the embassy compound to support its defenses.

The embassy breach was seen by some analysts as affirming their view that it is folly for the US to keep forces in Iraq after having eliminated the Islamic State group’s territorial hold in the country.

A US withdrawal from Iraq is also a long-term hope of Iran, noted Paul Salem, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

And it’s always possible Trump would “wake up one morning and make that decision” to pull US forces out of Iraq, as he announced earlier with the US military presence in neighboring Syria, Salem said. Trump’s Syria decision triggered the resignation of his first defense secretary, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, but the president later amended his decision and about 1,200 US troops remain in Syria.

Trump’s best weapon with Iran is the one he’s already using — the sanctions, said Salem. He and Ford said Trump would do best to keep resisting Iran’s attempt to turn the Iran-US conflict into a full-blown military one. The administration should also make a point of working with the Iraqi government to deal with the militias, Ford said.

For the president, Iran’s attacks — directly and now through proxies in Iraq — have “been working that nerve,” Salem said. “Now they really have Trump’s attention.”

 

Trump warns Iran of ‘BIG PRICE’ for attacks, sends 750 more troops to Mideast

January 1, 2020

Source: Trump warns Iran of ‘BIG PRICE’ for attacks, sends 750 more troops to Mideast | The Times of Israel

US president says Tehran directly responsible for protesters storming US Embassy compound in Iraq and says they will be held accountable

In this photo provided by US Department of Defense, US Marines assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) 19.2, prepare to deploy from Kuwait in support of a crisis response mission, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (US Marine Corps photos by Sgt. Robert G. Gavaldon via AP)

BAGHDAD — The US flew a rapid response team of Marines into Baghdad to reinforce its embassy on Tuesday after a mob of pro-Iranian demonstrators stormed the compound, setting fires and chanting “Death to America!”

Angered by US air strikes that killed two dozen fighters, hundreds of protesters spilled through checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone, demanding the ouster of US troops from Iraq and voicing loyalty to a powerful Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

US President Donald Trump blamed Tehran and warned that it would face punishment if Americans are killed.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” Trump said on Twitter late Tuesday.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” wrote Trump, adding “Happy New Year!”

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

….Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!

Hours later American officials said the US has deployed hundreds of troops to Kuwait and they they would likely be sent to neighboring Iraq.

“At least 500 members of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division have left Fort Bragg in the US, and up to 4,000 may ultimately be deployed,” the official told AFP.

Surprise, fury

The message came at the end of a day in which Washington officials appeared surprised and furious over the ease at which the protesters entered the Green Zone, reaching the US embassy compound for the first time in years.

They carried flags of the hardline Kataeb Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), a component of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network.

An Iraqi supporter of the Hashed al-Shaabi military network lifts a picture of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani during a rally in front of the US embassy in the capital Baghdad, on December 31, 2019, to vent anger over weekend air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

As live broadcasts showed the protesters battering down the high-security doors of the embassy reception building, smashing windows and burning a sentry box, the State Department and Pentagon demanded Iraq’s leaders provide security to the compound — which was already heavily fortified.

In phone calls with both Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and President Barham Saleh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “made clear the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq,” the State Department said.

Hours later a contingent of US Marines flew in from Kuwait, by which time some of the demonstrators had receded and others settled in for a sustained protest, preparing food for the evening.

In this photo provided by U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Marines assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) 19.2, prepare to deploy from Kuwait in support of a crisis response mission, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photos by Sgt. Robert G. Gavaldon via AP)

Trump directly blamed Iran for “orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq.”

“They will be held fully responsible,” he said.

Tehran countered that the United States is itself to blame for air strikes that killed about two dozen Kataeb Hezbollah fighters on Sunday.

“The surprising audacity of American officials is so much that after killing at least 25… and violating the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, that now… they attribute the Iraqi people’s protest against their cruel acts to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

A commander of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi Jawad al-Talaibawi (C) takes a selfie at a gate of the US embassy in the capital Baghdad on December 31, 2019, after supporters and members of the military network breached the outer wall of the compound during a rally to vent anger over weekend air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Strategic patience

The mob attack put a focus on the strains in the US-Iraqi relationship. Allies of Iran, which enjoys significant support in parts of the Iraqi government, increasingly challenge Washington’s influence in the country.

US jet fighters on Sunday struck five Kateab Hezbollah outposts in Iraq and Syria after a series of rocket attacks on US-occupied facilities in Iraq over the past two months that are blamed on the group and its alleged Iranian sponsors.

One of those attacks, in Kirkuk on Friday, left an American civilian contractor dead and exhausted what US officials called Trump’s “strategic patience” with Tehran.

“The president has shown a lot of restraint,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, told reporters Monday.

“We very much hoped that Iran would not miscalculate and confuse our restraint for weakness. But after so many attacks, it was important for the president to direct our armed forces to respond in a way that the Iranian regime will understand.”

Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction of their headquarters in the aftermath of a US airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, December 30, 2019. (AP Photo

First lesson’ to US

But it added to the growing calls by some political factions in Iraq to push US troops out of the country nearly 17 years after they entered and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Dozens of Iraqi lawmakers have called for a review of the agreement allowing about 5,200 US troops in Iraq, saying the airstrikes over the weekend violated the country’s sovereignty.

An Iraqi government statement said the attacks “force Iraq to review its relations and its security, political and legal framework to protect its sovereignty”.

The protesters who besieged the US embassy on Tuesday carried posters reading: “Parliament should oust US troops, or else we will!”

Late Tuesday Kataeb Hezbollah hailed the protest outside as a “first lesson” to Washington, “so that Trump knows he did something extremely stupid”.

“This may well be the low point of US policy in Iraq,” said Iraq expert Fanar Haddad of Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.

No evacuation plans

But US officials said there were no plans to evacuate the mission, and no US personnel were reported injured. Ambassador Matthew Tueller, who had been on holiday leave, was on his way back to the embassy.

During the day Trump also called Abdel Madi to emphasise the need to protect US personnel and facilities in Iraq, the White House said.

He later tweeted his thanks to Abdel Mahdi and Saleh for “their rapid response upon request” to the embassy attack.

 

Surge of Shiite militia attacks in store for US forces in Iraq, possibly Israel too – DEBKAfile

January 1, 2020

Source: Surge of Shiite militia attacks in store for US forces in Iraq, possibly Israel too – DEBKAfile

Iran’s leaders are not likely to be deterred by US President Donald Trump’s warning on Dec. 31 that Tehran would be held responsible for attacks on US forces in Iraq and the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad.

The mob of thousands of Kataib Hezballah supporters who broke into the embassy on Tuesday heralded the reverse scenario. Iran believes that ramping up the pressure on US forces in Iraq will serve its interests in Iraq as well as in Syria.

DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources note three motivations for Tehran’s anti-US belligerent stance at this time:

1. By fighting the “American threat to Baghdad,” Iran hopes to find a unifying slogan for recovering the allegiance of the Shiite masses who are protesting across southern Iraq and Baghdad against excessive Iranian influence in Baghdad.

2. The Kata’ib Hezballah militia’s multiple rocket attack on the US K-1 base near KIrkuk on Saturday, Dec. 28, in which a US civilian contractor was killed and at least four American soldiers injured, was not intended as a one-off. It was the signal for this Shiite militia to move from sporadic, single rocket attacks on US military sites to heavy bombardments on a scale that recalls the assaults staged against US forces by pro-Iranian organizations 14 years ago.

Hezballah is not the only aggressive militia at the disposal of Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani for this strategy. He can call on at least another half a dozen Shiite paramilitary groups capable and willing to fight the “American Satan.”

3. The US takeover of the gas fields of eastern Syria and its deepening military presence along the Syrian-Iraq border are a major impediment to Tehran’s aspirations for a direct land route via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

Tehran sees that the entire logistic and military framework it painstakingly set up on both sides of Syrian-Iraqi border have been under constant US and Israeli air assault since early November.
For all these reasons, Tehran believes it has plenty to gain by battling the US presence in Iraq and Syria and may be expected at some point to settle its score with Israel as well.