Rebecca Grant: Iranian-backed attack on American Embassy in Iraq increases risk of US-Iran military conflict
President Trump faced plenty of problems dealing with Iran and Iraq until now, but on the last day of 2019 his problems got a lot worse when dozens of Shiite militia members backed by Iran forced their way into the U.S. Embassy compound in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, set fires and caused other damage.
The militia members, who eventually withdrew from the embassy compound, were part of a much larger group of several thousand people protesting outside the embassy. They denounced American airstrikes that killed two dozen members of an Iranian-backed militia and wounded dozens more over the weekend.
The protesters chanted “Death to America,” threw rocks and called for a withdrawal of the more than 5,000 U.S. troops now stationed in Iraq – a long-sought goal of Iran’s anti-American regime. Protesters said they planned to remain outside the embassy.
Job One for the U.S. military is keeping Americans and the embassy secure. Some 120 Marines were sent to the embassy to provide increased security and U.S. helicopter gunships flew over the compound.
You can be sure that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have laid out an array of military options and President Trump has been briefed and is up to speed on all of them.
If needed, U.S. forces can and no doubt will impose calm on downtown Baghdad.
Baghdad will not see a repeat of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in 2012, when the U.S. ambassador and three Americans were killed. Nor will we see a repeat of the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran, when revolutionaries captured 52 Americans and held them hostage for 444 days.
It’s actually Iraq’s duty to protect the U.S, Embassy. President Trump made that clear on Twitter and in a call with Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi, as did other top U.S. officials with their Iraqi counterparts.
In one tweet Trump said “we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified.” Later Trump tweeted: “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!”
This is all happening because Iraq is infested with Iranian influence. The power of that influence was clear when at first Iraqi police and security forces stood by while the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad began Tuesday – just as Iran planned.
The mob attacking the U.S. Embassy was filled with members of an Iranian-backed terror group called Kataib Hezbollah, or KH for short, which is closely allied with Iran’s Quds militia force.
Iran has a grip on Iraq’s police and military response. And Iranian officers have free rein across much of Iraq’s state apparatus, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in November after reviewing leaked Iraqi diplomatic cables published by The New York Times.
Iraq’s military has been thoroughly trained and supplied by the U.S. and other allies for years. Yet the failure of Iraqi forces to act against Iranian-backed militia forces in recent weeks has been similar to the paralysis that let ISIS sweep to the outskirts of Baghdad in the summer of 2014.
Iraq has lost control to the point where Iran can mount harassing attacks on U.S. forces all over the country. American troops in Iraq were attacked 11 times in the past two months, according to the Pentagon. The attacks have occurred from south of Mosul to near Kirkuk in the north and other locations.
Trump had already waited weeks for Iraq to deal with these hostile acts.
Iraq’s own military would not or could not hit the KH Iran proxy gang that launched over 30 rockets at an Iraqi base where U.S. forces were stationed Saturday, killing one American and wounding four.
Since Iraq couldn’t cope, Trump approved the Sunday strikes by U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, hitting weapons caches linked to the KH Iran proxy gang.
The airstrikes also help remind Iran that America is willing to take military action. Trump has been quite restrained, backing off a retaliatory strike after Iran shot down a U.S Navy Global Hawk drone. Nor did Saudi Arabia strike back after Iran hit the Saudi Aramco oil complex.
The crisis in Iraq has been boiling since October, when Iraqis increased their demonstrations against government corruption and Iran’s influence. Some 319 Iraqis were killed in protests from October to mid-November, according to an Iraqi Parliament report.
Long-term, Iran’s guilt in the attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad shows why Trump has been right to impose maximum economic sanctions to pressure Iran, and why he insists on dismantling Iran’s `terror network as well as its nuclear ambitions.
The Trump administration will no doubt keep up the sanctions, but be ready for military action if necessary.