Iran and its proxies are increasing their systematic and coordinated threats against the United States in Iraq. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has said that any "small mistake" by Washington would be met with force.
The threat came as reports emerged that IRGC Quds Force head Esmail Ghaani had travelled to Iraq. In Iraq the Iranian-backed proxy groups Kata'ib Hezbollah and others have upped their rhetoric against the US in recent days. US President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday afternoon that "upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price."
It appears many groups in Iraq are now concerned about reports in Western media that the US had also planned an attack on Iranian-backed proxies. This has fed a media cycle or war of words in which there is a kind of feedback loop. The pro-Iranian groups have fired dozens of rockets at bases where US personnel are located. They have killed two American soldiers, one British soldier and an American contractor.
In response, the US launched airstrikes and killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force. This led to more rocket attacks, verbal posturing by Iranian-backed groups and plans by them to attack US forces. Trump's comments reveal that Iran and its allies have concrete plans in place to carry out more attacks. This comes amid Iranian pressure for the US to reduce sanctions, and as the regime seeks to distract from a coronavirus pandemic at home that has killed thousands. US forces reportedly receive daily threats about imminent attacks.
The US is closing several posts it held at bases around Iraq, shortening its internal defense lines.
March has brought new problems between the US and Iran in Iraq. The US is closing several posts it held at bases around Iraq and transferring them to the Iraqis. Ostensibly this is what the pro-Iran crowd wants. But the Iranians are chomping at the bit to fight the US, something they have warned they will do for years.
Momentary convenience found them and the US on the same side against ISIS. But they want the US to leave Iraq. Iran wants the US to leave Iraq. The current US administration has slapped sanctions on Tehran, and says openly it opposes Iran's increased role in the region, including Iran's threats against US allies in the Gulf and Israel.
What appears to be going on in Iraq is some jockeying for position before the war. This is like the so-called "Phony War" that preceded the invasion of France in April 1940. It is different from Israel's campaign between the wars because Israel actually carries out airstrikes and the enemy tries to muster forces against Israel through weapons transfers.
In Iraq the forces arrayed against the US consist of rocket teams, and masses of men with sniper rifles, RPGs and some armored vehicles. They can't fight a real war against the US. They want to harass the Americans until the drawdown comes. They know the US has left Iraq before, in the 1990s and in 2011.
To create layers of plausible deniability, the pro-Iranian proxies have not only created numerous units within the Hashd al-Shaabi, a group of mostly Shi'ite militias that are now an official paramilitary force, but new groups keep popping up with names like Ashab Alkahaf and Usbat al Thaerin, groups that exist on paper but not on the streets. Behind them is the long arm of Iran, the octopus of IRGC advisors and pro-Iranian activists such as Hezbollah's Mohammed al-Kawtharani.
The Iranian proxies are good at bragging. They put up videos of former battles against the US, they claim the "countdown" has begun to US withdrawal, and they claim to have trained to fight a planned US "coup." This is part of setting the bar high for what the US plans to do in order to make it seem like their existence is a form of "resistance."
This is the general Iranian narrative. The arc of "resistance" is what Iran calls its allies in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The US says it is staying in Iraq and merely consolidating bases. Indeed, it seems the US is leaving every non-essential base used in the anti-ISIS fight, and bringing Patriot air defense to Ayn al-Assad. Smaller footprint, more choices.
The US no longer is training the Iraqis, meaning there is less friction and fewer places the forces meet. This insulates the US from the coronavirus that is raging in areas in Iran and Iraq. It can give the US more options to retaliate and give the enemy fewer places to attack.
With US internal lines shortened the question is what comes next. The US mandate in Iraq is to fight ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government. There is currently no prime minister in Iraq because the prime minister resigned in November and two replacements have had trouble creating a coalition. That sounds a bit like Israel's problems, but it's more complex because the pro-Iranian factions in parliament have faced social justice protests.
Iran is happy. It wants a weakened Iraqi government that it can co-opt and where it can transfer missiles to and build up its local militias into an Iraqi version of the IRGC. The US is busy dealing with coronavirus, too, and as long as both the US and Iraqis on the ground are distracted by the pandemic, the war of words might stay just words.
An airstrike in Syria on Tuesday night, however, shows that not everything is quiet. No one took credit for the strike but it likely targeted something linked to Iran, as has been the case in the past. Iraqis will be watching the aftermath of that strike and whether Iran seeks to respond to whomever Iran blames for it.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.