US forces retreat to defensible bases in Iraq as Iran-backed militias loom

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The handover ceremony for Kirkuk K-1 Air Base was a muted affair.

US General Vincent Barker was seated at a table in an unadorned hangar as he signed documents officially transferring control of the base to the Iraqi army. He smiled, shaking hands with his Iraqi counterpart, the two men wearing rubber gloves to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

And then the Americans were gone. K-1 is the third base of Iraqi coalition forces led by the United States to withdraw last month. Some western troops withdraw completely from Iraq, and the remaining troops are taken to smaller outposts and grouped into a handful of larger facilities.

The coalition said the withdrawal is a sign of its victory over Islamic State (IS) and also a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which halted training programs for Iraqi forces and thereby reduced the need for troops. western.

But behind the troop movements, there is also growing concern over the threat of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which intensified attacks on Western forces in the three months after the state assassination. -United States of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general.

A militia rocket fired at K-1 on December 27 killed an American entrepreneur and triggered the escalation cycle that resulted in the death of Soleimani at Baghdad airport seven days later. In the weeks that followed, two American soldiers and a British soldier were killed while dozens of Iraqi militiamen died in American air strikes.

Now fears are mounting of a new round of fighting as Washington and Tehran plan their next actions.

Donald Trump accused Iran this week of planning “a sneak attack” against US forces in Iraq. “If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed! He wrote on Twitter. But the White House, seeing that Iran is distracted by its uncontrolled coronavirus epidemic, seems to be weighing down if it is the moment of its own attack.

Iranian hawks in the administration, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are pressuring the United States to launch an all-out assault on Kataib Hezbollah, one of the main militias supported by Iran. According to the New York Times, US military leaders on the ground in Iraq and the Pentagon are opposed to the idea. Trump himself has so far been undecided.

Iran and its agents have promised a fierce response to any US decision. “Any action against Iranian security will come up against Iran’s strongest defensive response,” said Mohammad Bagheri, Iranian chief of staff.

“Both sides are trying to use the crisis to their advantage, but Iran may have much less to lose,” said Michael Horowitz, chief of intelligence at geopolitical consultancy Le Beck. “Reports of a potential escalation could also be an attempt by the United States to restore deterrence at a time when Iran may be more willing to take risks.”

As the confusion continues, the remaining British and American troops retreat to larger bases which are more easily defensible. The US military has deployed Patriot missile batteries at the Ain al-Asad base in western Iraq and at Irbil in the north to defend against future rocket attacks.

“It makes sense to restructure the coalition’s presence to focus on several key assets rather than distributing troops on undefended bases,” said Mr. Horowitz.

The United States has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and the United Kingdom has less than 400. International forces are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government to defeat IS and train Iraqi troops, not to fight Iran.

Baghdad has repeatedly warned the United States not to use Iraqi soil as a battleground for its campaign against Iran. Iraqi lawmakers widely condemned the US strike on Soleimani in January and adopted a symbolic motion demanding that US forces withdraw from Iraq in response.

The current moment is even more difficult as Iraqi government revenues collapse amid low oil prices and health officials are fighting to prevent the Iranian coronavirus epidemic from spilling over the long border of the two nations.

The resumption of fighting could cause new Western victims and put new pressure on Tehran, which is already facing multiple crises. But it’s probably the Iraqis who will pay the highest price if their country is again the theater of someone else’s war.

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