The US does not intend to end or even curtail its military presence in Iraq (as well as Syria) after the defeat of the Islamic State. It is planning to turn Iraq into a major theater of confrontation with Iran. There are signs that a war with Iran may be much closer than we think.
CIA director Mike Pompeo, an official known for his staunch opposition to Iran, has warned Tehran that the United States would hold it accountable for any attacks it conducted on American interests. Addressing high-ranking US military and security officials on Saturday, Dec. 2, at a defence forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley, California, Pompeo said that he had sent the letter to General Qassem Suleimani, a leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and elite Quds. “What we were communicating to him in that letter was that we will hold him and Iran accountable… and we wanted to make sure that he and the leadership of Iran understood that in a way that was crystal clear,” the CIA director explained.
According to Pompeo, the message was sent after the senior Iranian military commander had indicated that forces under his control might attack US forces in Iraq. He did not specify the date. “You need to only look to the past few weeks and the efforts of the Iranians to exert influence now in Northern Iraq in addition to other places in Iraq to see that Iranian efforts to be the hegemonic power throughout the Middle East continues to increase,” he noted. Pompeo also said that Saudi Arabia had grown more willing to share intelligence with other Middle Eastern nations regarding Iran and Islamist extremism.
According to Kurdish Basnews, large-scale US forces arrived at the Kaywan base-K1 west of Kirkuk on Nov.28 to split into two contingents. Several hundred servicemen stayed on base. Another contingent headed east on Dec. 1 towards Tuz Khumatu in eastern Iraq and took control of the Siddiq military airport 35 km to the west. Tuz Khumatu lies 100 km west of the Iraqi-Iranian border and 163 km north of Baghdad. US forces have never been deployed so close to the Iranian border since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
In mid-November, several hundred US Marines were reported to be building a new base in western Iraq, about 20 km from the strategic Anbar Province town of Al Qaim, which had been captured from Islamic State. Evidently, the move is part of US plan to prevent the creation of a Syrian-Iraqi corridor from Iran.
In mid-October, the Iraqi government allowed pro-Iranian Shia forces to capture Kirkuk and its oilfields from the Kurds. The US is not happy with the prospects of Iranian control established over Northern Iraq’s oil. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on October 22 said it was time for Iranian military advisers and fighters “to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control.” Tehran supports large parts of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), composed mainly of Shiite militias, both militarily and financially. But they have gone through a process of state legitimization, becoming a part of Iraq’s security forces. Their status and activities are an internal Iraqi affair.
Tillerson’s statement was followed up by US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who said in an interview on Oct.25 that it is possible to contain Iran's influence in the Middle East, and that a strong Iraq would be part of that.
Coincidence or not, the American forces were deployed near the Iranian border at almost the same time Israel delivered an air strike (Dec.2) at the Syrian army’s 91st Brigade HQ, outside al-Kiswah – 14km southwest of Damascus where an alleged meeting of pro-Iranian Shia militia chiefs was taking place. On November 10, the BBC released a report that Iran was “building permanent military base in Syria.” Israeli leaders have sworn to prevent Iran from establishing permanent bases.
43 Congress members sent a letter dated Nov.14 to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling for a change of strategy in Syria. According to the lawmakers, “A strategy for Syria that includes how the United States plans to prevent Iran from gaining a permanent foothold on Israel and Jordan’s doorstep and to block Iranian arms exports to Hizbollah”.
Another essential component of the United States’ anti-Iran strategy is promoting Saudi-Iraqi ties. A meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud took place with US blessing when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the launching of Coordination Council. The abovementioned Tillerson’s statement (Oct.22) was made at his meeting with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The US’ return to the centre stage in Iraq to challenge Iran’s regional influence will give much vigor to the US’ alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is seeking alliances that can cement its presence in Iraq. The high-level Iraqi visits to Jeddah and Riyadh have increased lately on the diplomatic, economic and military levels. Riyadh has also increased its participation in international economic forums in Baghdad, counting 60 companies that partook in Baghdad’s International Fair. This summer, Moktada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement, which represents millions of poor Shia Muslims in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq, paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. He also visited the United Arab Emirates, another Sunni state that opposes Iran.
The US military presence in Iran allows it to prevent the establishment by Iran of a land link to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, boost its role in Syrian settlement, conduct covert cross-border operations to destabilize the government in Tehran and maintain staging areas to deploy reinforcements in case of war. There are signs that a coordinated campaign to roll back Iran is underway. The possibility of war against Iran has grown immensely in the recent days.