US position in Iraq in jeopardy after strikes

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Senior Donald Trump administration officials insisted today that a series of strikes into Iraq and Syria were a defensive measure taken after a suspected Iran-backed attack this weekend killed an American contractor and wounded several US troops.

“We are not looking for any conflict in the Middle East,” the senior State Department official told reporters on Monday. “But we are not going to let Iran get away with using a proxy force to attack American interests.”

But the move to hit two targets inside Iraq, which senior State Department officials said came after 11 attacks by Iranian proxies on Iraqi bases in the past two months, has already led to severe condemnation from the embattled government in Baghdad.

Iraq has extended a tenuous invitation to 5,200 American troops to fight the Islamic State (IS) in the war-torn nation. But it’s not clear how the invitation would extend to any effort to deal with provocations from Iran-backed groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah.

In a statement Dec. 29, the Iraqi government called the bombings, which the Pentagon characterized as “precision defensive strikes,” a “dangerous violation” of the rules for the US military to fight IS. Iraq promised it would review US ties after the strikes.

The senior US official who spoke today said the Trump administration warned Iraq many times about the possibility of a strike to deal with Iranian actions, which have increased since the White House removed sanctions waivers allowing allies to import Iranian oil.

A harsh reaction from Iraq and the uptick in Iranian military activity is raising new questions about the viability of keeping US troops in the country to fight IS. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned amid anti-government protests that have lasted for nearly three months and left more than 500 dead.

Though Mahdi remains in place as a caretaker until a successor is named, President Barham Salih — who enjoys longstanding ties with US officials — also threatened to resign last week, further complicating the situation.

“Leaving the Iraqi political response & long-term presence of US troops aside for now, [the US-backed coalition’s] already limited operating space in Iraq is going to become a lot more constricted in the aftermath of the al-Qa'im strikes,” tweeted Alex Mello, a security analyst at Horizon Client access who covers the military situation in Iraq.

The threat of Iranian proxy rocket fire could pose a significant threat to the US-led fight against IS, he said, and Iran-backed groups could target American forces with advanced roadside bombs, putting the continuation of US supplies in jeopardy.

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Found in: Iran-US tensions

Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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