A pandemic is spreading around the world, challenging global health systems and national preparedness. About the only thing the novel coronavirus is not disrupting is conflict between the U.S. and Iran, as the top U.S. general in the Middle East signaled Friday that the airstrikes on Iranian proxy militias in Iraq are likely to not be the last.
On Thursday night, U.S. warplanes struck what Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie described as five “advanced conventional” weapons storage sites in Iraq kept by the Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah. Kataib Hezbollah’s Iraqi leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed by the same U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Iranian external security chief Qassem Soleimani. McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, for the first time called the group responsible for this week’s rocket attack on Iraq’s Camp Taji that killed two U.S. service members, Army Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias and Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts.
While McKenzie testified on Thursday that the Soleimani assassination restored a “rough form of deterrence” against Iran itself, McKenzie indicated on Friday that Iran’s proxy forces—for 15 years, Iran’s preferred, deniable mechanism to kill and maim U.S. forces—are unlikely to cease attacks on the U.S. in Iraq.
“The threat remains very high. Tensions have not gone down,” McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon early on Friday. Iran’s decision not to respond conventionally after launching ballistic missiles at U.S. positions in January—and shooting down a civilian airliner by accident—provides only what McKenzie called an “illusion of normality.”
For all the Trump administration has said about restoring deterrence by killing Soleimani, McKenzie indicated that the major impact two months after the loss of the Iranian general was that “it’s harder for them to make effective decisions, it’s harder for them to convey their will to their proxies… None of their core objectives have changed, it’s their ability to execute.”
McKenzie said that the five weapons depots struck were nowhere near the entirety of Kataib Hezbollah’s arsenal. “Plenty” of additional caches exist and may become U.S. targets, he added, should Iran-backed militias, as expected, continue targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. McKenzie telegraphed that Americans should expect “continued engagement [from the militias] we’re just going to have to deal with in the theater going forward.”
Asked why the U.S. didn’t hit all Kataib Hezbollah’s weapons sites, McKenzie answered, “restraint.” That was a reference to the anger that Iraqis have felt over becoming a battleground for the U.S. and Iran— something that has jeopardized the future of U.S. forces there. “We have to respect, to some degree, the government of Iraq’s wishes,” McKenzie said— although he stopped short of saying the Iraqis were consulted prior to the strike.
Iraq, like everywhere else, is struggling with COVID-19. Eight deaths have been attributed to the pandemic. Hospital systems battered by decades of war have to balance bed space for the public health emergency and the wounded from war. While McKenzie did not detail Iraqi casualties from the Thursday strike, the Iraqi military said the U.S. killed three Iraqi army commandos, two federal policemen and a civilian, as well as wounding five Popular Mobilization Unit militiamen—something that showed the deep ties between the Iranian-backed militias and the Iraqi security forces that the U.S. sponsors.
The Iraqi presidency on Friday called the U.S. strike a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, much as it called the Soleimani slaying. “The presidency of the Republic denounces the foreign bombing that targeted many locations inside Iraq, including the Karbala airport under construction, and led to the martyrdom and wounding of members of the Iraqi security forces and civilians,” it said in a statement. The presidency had earlier denounced the militia strike on Camp Taji.
“We’re a post-conflict state. Our resources are stressed. Oil prices are down,” an Iraqi official explained to The Daily Beast. “We have to contend with coronavirus. The last thing we want to deal with is an escalation in a proxy war.”
Yet the U.S. remains in an escalatory posture. For the first time since 2012, the military has two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Harry S Truman. Plus McKenzie said batteries of the Patriot anti-missile system are continuing to stream into Iraq, despite representing another source of tension with the Iraqi government. While Navy aircraft can launch from the carriers to strike militia targets, the heavy hardware is more responsive to a state like Iran than to its low-level proxy forces in Iraq. The actual mission of the U.S. in Iraq, to prevent a resurgence of the so-called Islamic State, seems like an afterthought, despite two Marine Raiders dying in an intense fight against ISIS this week.
McKenzie appeared to acknowledge the stress. The Patriots don’t protect against rocket fire, and there aren’t enough counter-rocket systems to safeguard every position hosting U.S. forces in Iraq, he said. But McKenzie reiterated what he told a Senate panel on Thursday: As long as the Trump administration continues its Maximum Pressure campaign on Iran, Iran will seek to break it through violence, including proxy violence. Thursday’s strikes were supposed to be a “clear, unambiguous signal that we will not tolerate this behavior in the future.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a senior Pentagon and State Department Middle East official during the Obama administration, said this week’s attacks displayed “mindblowing stupidity” from the Americans, the Iranians, and the Iranian-backed militias. He questioned the carrier and Patriot deployments as overkill and warned that coronavirus posed a far greater threat to all involved.
“This is a moment for deescalation and to focus on things like regional diplomacy. In the midst of a global pandemic, borders don’t matter,” said Goldenberg, now with the Center for a New American Security. “We should be having Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, and Americans sitting down to talk about how you manage this… All of our major resources need to go to thinking through that global emergency, not going to the Middle East.”