Iran-US Tension in Iraq: A Military and Strategic Analysis

Hadi Atay Coordinator, Security Studies

Considering the latest military activities in the region, is the US in preparation for an attack on the Iranian-backed militia groups, particularly the Kataib Hezbollah, as claimed?

Definition of the Agenda

With the rise of the US-Iranian tension in Iraq, the US Army has started to install the Patriot Missile Defense Systems on its two military bases in Iraq. In addition to the recently increased military mobility, there have been other developments, indicating that the US was repositioning its forces in the region:

• First of all, there has been some evidence, demonstrating that the US has been mobilizing (redeploying) its military personal and assets in Iraq.

• Meanwhile, the US and the UAE held a joint military exercise, called Native Fury 20 on March 21 and 22.

• The Pentagon allegedly started preparing a new assault scenario, concerning the Iraq-based Kataib Hezbollah.

• Despite the coronavirus outbreak, the amphibious warship USS Bataan has crossed the Strait of Hormuz and returned to the Arabian Gulf.

In the context of these military developments, several questions should be asked to have a clear picture of the current mobility process:

• Firstly, is the US in preparation for an attack on the Iranian-backed militia groups, particularly the Kataib Hezbollah, as claimed? Or would it be that the US is embarking on a longer-term military-political strategy?

• Would the new US strategy only be limited to Iraq or would it be envisaged to extend it to the wider region?

• Would the Coronavirus crisis lead the US and Iran to perceive each other in a vulnerable and fragile position and cause miscalculations that could trigger a direct conflict?

Iranian Standpoint and Strategy

a. In the political arena, Iran has tried to eliminate Adnan Zurfi's chance to become the next prime minister of Iraq. In his visit to Baghdad, Quds Force Commander Ismail Qaani heavily lobbied to convince the Shiite and Kurdish actors to fully support Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s candidacy. Together with these political engineering efforts, Tehran has started to adopt a new military strategy in Iraq. Iran is currently establishing new militia groups with names, evocative of ‘Iraqi nationalism and the resistance spirit.’ Indeed, Iran knows that these militia groups, which used lethal force to suppress the emerging Shiite opposition, have suffered from a loss of prestige among the Iraqi people. Besides, by implementing ‘deniability,’ Iran tries to safeguard the militia groups, it supports against the US retaliation attacks. Accordingly, Iran plans to organize ‘new’ groups to conduct attacks on the US interests in Iraq, instead of using those groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah, whose associations with the Revolutionary Guards are evident. The attack on the base in Taji, in which two US soldiers were killed and which is identical to the Kataib Hezbollah operations, is the most obvious example of this strategy of deploying a ‘new’ militia group, called Usbat al-Thairin. By making Usbat al-Thairin look like a ‘rebel cell,’ Iran intends to create an image of a new Iraqi uprising against the United States.

b. The second pillar of Iran's strategy is to provoke the US to engage in harsh retaliatory strikes. In other words, militias are directly targeting the US military personnel and American companies and civilians that operate in Iraq in a bid to compel the US to wage a large-scale military operation. A large-scale military response would result in ‘collateral damage,’ inflicted on the Iraqi security forces and civilians. If this situation occurs, it may bring the negative memory of the American occupation of 2003 back into the collective consciousness and trigger a popular uprising. This may also compel political actors, army personnel and the government in Baghdad to take an anti-American position. It should be kept in mind that these tensions flared up in Iraq after the US Army assassinated Soleimani and al-Muhandis on January 3. During the demonstration, organized by Muqtada Sadr, 250,000 Iraqis protested the US and called for the US withdrawal from Iraq. In addition, the Iraqi parliament had decided on the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. If we examine these developments and take the social and political dynamics in Iraq into consideration, we can predict that these kinds of reactive trends could come back into the play.

c. The third pillar of the Iranian strategy is the war of attrition. It is almost impossible for the US Army to completely eliminate the Iranian-backed militias in this war of attrition. Indeed, it is clear that the US cannot resort to a ‘final solution’ against the militia groups, which have infiltrated into the state institutions and established a large network throughout the country. The coalition forces deployed some 450,000 military personnel including 250,000 combat troops to Iraq during the upsurge of fighting after the invasion. Despite this, the US military failed in the first battle of Fallujah, where 600 civilians were killed in the conflicts. Moreover, although the United States was equipped with highly sophisticated weapons, the military balance on the ground was in favor of the militias. For instance, the Iranian-backed militias were capable of preparing Katyusha rockets to launch in minutes, which are known for their low-cost and effective firepower. However, in order to protect its bases against the rocket attacks, the US had to adopt certain measures, such as the Patriot air defense systems which are time-consuming, limited in number and very costly to install.

The US Strategy

a. For Countering Iran's tactics of ‘deniability’ through the formation of new militant groups in Iraq, the Trump Administration has repeatedly stressed that “Tehran would be responsible for the attacks by the Iraqi militias against the US forces in Iraq.” However, the legitimacy of a retaliatory attack against Iran by blaming it for the attacks, carried out by the new militia groups would not be welcomed in the international arena. At this point, the US would have to disclose compelling intelligence in order to prove the existence of the organizational links between Iran and ‘the resistance forces,’ such as Usbat al-Thairin and Ashab al-Kahf.

b. In order not to fall into Iran’s ‘trap’ and to avoid a harsh military response against the Iraqi militias, the US Army aims to prevent suffering from heavy casualties by strengthening the defensive capability of its ground elements. Following this, the army evacuated seven military bases and moved its forces to Ayn al-Assad and Harir and is trying to reinforce these bases with the installation of air defense systems. The installation of the Patriot system to counter long-range missile attacks and of the C-RAM batteries to counter medium-range rocket strikes would not eliminate the threat of the rocket attacks, launched by militias. It will, however, be capable of detecting and eliminating a significant number of these missiles before they reach the target. Along with the factors such as the air defense systems that provide the US forces with a protective shield, and also the strategic location of the Ayn al-Assad base, the US will be able to prevent the passage west of the 43rd meridian (approximately west of Ramadi) and cut off the Iraqi militias from Syria.

c. The third pillar of the US strategy is to curb the effectivity and capacity of the militia groups and, thereby minimizing the ability of these organizations to further the war of attrition. Since the US Army avoids operations that could result in large numbers of casualties among Iraqis, it will probably focus on targeting commanders of leading militia forces. In this context, the outcome of the elimination of the commander of the Quds force, Qassim Soleimani, and the de facto commander of the Iranian-backed militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, should be highlighted: After this attack, the Quds Force's operational capacity was weakened and the effectiveness of these Iranian-backed military-political forces in Iraq began to diminish. The threat of ‘targeted assassinations’ compelled the militia groups to adopt some precautionary measures. The newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that the Iranian-backed militias scattered their members in various points, camouflaged their heavy weapons like tanks, and also started using civilian vehicles. Moreover, the newspaper, in reference to a high-ranking Iraqi intelligence source, claimed that some militias had withdrawn from their bases and that the militia commanders had ordered their militias to abandon the checkpoints. Furthermore, several sources alleged that the militia commanders even changed their phone numbers.


• Iraq is of crucial strategic importance for both parties. As Iran strives to maintain its military-political presence in Iraq and secure its land bridge to Lebanon, the US tries to control the route that connects the Iraqi militias to Syria.

• The United States, on the one hand, continues to withdraw from various bases in Iraq, gathering its forces at the Ayn al-Assad and Harir bases and aiming to minimize its potential casualties. On the other hand, open-source intel indicates that the CENTCOM has started to apply combat protocols for its naval and air units in the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. In other words, while the US Army holds a ‘defensive’ position in Iraq, it is adopting an ‘aggressive’ combat design in the Gulf, which will enable it to carry out counter land operations against Iran.

• Based on the composition of the parties' military presence on the ground, it is expected that the US will not engage in a wider military conflict in Iraq. Therefore, the main US strategy in Iraq is the ‘successful disengagement’ strategy.

• Since the Iranian economy has been brought to the point of collapse through imposing severe sanctions and a strategic siege, the US, at this stage, avoids resorting to costly and high-risk military options.

• The two parties perceive each other as being in a vulnerable and fragile position due to the coronavirus crisis. It should not be overlooked that these perceptions have the potential to cause miscalculations and persuade the political and military decision-makers to opt for a direct conflict scenario.

This article was first published in 8.4.2020 at Anadolu Agency.

US, Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, Iran, Kataib Hezbollah, Usbat al-Thairin

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