The Donald Trump administration is willing to take preemptive strikes to protect US forces and personnel in Iraq, top Pentagon officials said today, after Iran-backed forces breached the American embassy in Baghdad earlier this week in response to Pentagon airstrikes.
"We will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces and protect American lives,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in a Pentagon gaggle on Thursday. “The game has changed, and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region.”
The Pentagon’s decision to leave wiggle room for preemptive strikes comes after the United States launched precision-guided bombs against five targets housing Khataib Hezbollah on Dec. 31, prompting the embassy breach.
The US administration holds the Iran-backed group responsible for an attack on a Kirkuk military facility that killed one US contractor and wounded several troops. Following the tit-for-tat, the Pentagon has reinforced the US Embassy in Baghdad with 750 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne division and approximately 100 marines tasked with protecting American diplomats.
The Defense Department blames Iran-backed Shiite militias for “repeatedly” attacking US bases in Iraq, according to a Thursday statement from Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. The Pentagon believes the attacks are being directed by the leadership of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the United States labels as a terrorist organization.
Milley, the US military’s top officer, said the groups had conducted as many as 15 attacks since October in a “sustained campaign” that “has increased in tempo and intensity” despite more than 14,000 US troops deploying to the Middle East to counter Iranian military activity since May, when the Trump administration ended sanctions waivers allowing nations to import oil from Tehran.
“We know that the intent of this last attack was in fact to kill American soldiers, sailors, airmen [and] marines,” Milley said. “31 rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot. That’s designed to inflict damage and kill.” Milley described the protests at the embassy as a show “for the camera” and said that anyone who attempts to overrun the facility “will run into a buzzsaw.”
Though Iraq did not permit US forces exiting Syria in November to remain permanently in Iraq and mounted protests over Tuesday’s strikes, Baghdad has not asked US forces to leave the country, Esper said.
Though Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has repeatedly pushed for Khataib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups to obey commands from the Iraqi military, Esper and Milley questioned Baghdad’s efforts.
"In my view, having spent a fair amount of time in Iraq, they have the capability,” Milley said. “It’s a question of will. It’s a question of political will, and that’s not for us to decide."
Abdul Mahdi resigned in November amid months of anti-corruption protests that left more than 500 Iraqis dead as security forces have fired on demonstrators, but has agreed to stay on as a caretaker until a successor is named. President Barham Salih threatened to leave office last month.