Iran might be planning additional attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East following the missile attack on an Iraqi base last week that left an American dead and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by Iranian-backed militias, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Jan. 2, as leaders of Iran and the United States said they wanted to steer clear of war but warned of their armies’ capabilities.
Iran and Iran-backed groups also downed a U.S. drone last year and have carried out other attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq in recent months.
Without providing details, Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that the United States has “indications” that more Iranian provocations may be in the offing. If that happens, he said, the United States will take action—preemptively, if it has enough warning.
The latest trigger came after Kataib Hizbollah (KH), an Iran-backed terror group that’s part of the Iraqi government-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Forces, conducted a rocket attack on an Iraqi base near Kirkuk last week that killed one American contractor and wounded many American and Iraqi soldiers.
President Donald Trump authorized the airstrikes on Dec. 29 on five targets related to the group in Iraq and Syria, killing dozens of fighters and wounding dozens of others.
This week, multiple Iran-backed militia groups gathered at the U.S. Embassy, breaching its outer walls, hurling rocks at buildings, and torching the walls and guard posts.
The “violent rallies” left damage to “exterior entry facilities and buildings at the embassy compound,” Esper said in a statement.
“We know it was Iranian-backed Shia militias because key leaders were spotted in the crowd and some militia members showed up wearing their uniforms and carried the flags of their militia, including KH,” he said, following up on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointing out four militia leaders seen in the crowd at the embassy.
The attack today was orchestrated by terrorists – Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Qays al-Khazali – and abetted by Iranian proxies – Hadi al Amari and Faleh al-Fayyad. All are pictured below outside our embassy. pic.twitter.com/2QfGGrfmDd
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 31, 2019
Militias backed off Wednesday at the behest of the Iraqi government but celebrated what they said was an accomplishment.
“After achieving the intended aim, we pulled out from this place triumphantly,” said Fadhil al-Gezzi, a militia supporter. “We rubbed America’s nose in the dirt.”
One hundred Marines were deployed from Kuwait and 750 paratroopers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division were deployed in reaction to the rallies. More troops would be deployed “over the next several days,” Esper said Tuesday. Thursday, he told reporters that “we’ll take it day by day.”
Speaking alongside Esper, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States has sufficient forces at the Baghdad Embassy to defend it.
“We are very confident that the integrity of that embassy is strong, and it is highly unlikely to be physically overrun by anyone,” Milley said. “There is sufficient combat power there, air and ground, that anyone who attempts to overrun will run into a buzz saw.”
Both President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders have said they don’t want to go to war. After promising on New Year’s Eve that the Marines arrived quickly in Iraq and that the situation wouldn’t become “a Benghazi”—referring to the 2012 killings of four American officials in a diplomatic compound in Libya—Trump said he didn’t foresee going to war with Iran.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea for Iran,” he said. “It wouldn’t last very long. Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”
Revolutionary Guards Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami said Thursday, according to semi-official agency Tasnim, that Iran wasn’t moving toward war with the United States but wasn’t afraid of any conflict.
“We are not leading the country to war, but we are not afraid of any war and we tell America to speak correctly with the Iranian nation. We have the power to break them several times over and are not worried,” he said.
Iran’s Army chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi added to state-controlled IRIB that Iranian forces were ready to fight. “Our armed forces…monitor all moves, and if anyone makes the slightest mistake, they will decisively react, and if the situation heats up, we will show our abilities to the enemy,” he said.
Esper called on American allies to support the United States against Iran.
“Let me speak directly to Iran and to our partners and allies. To Iran and its proxy militias: we will not accept continued attacks against our personnel and forces in the region,” he said in the statement. “Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end their malign activities.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.