US-Iranian combat looms in Iraq as US plans UN role for US troop remnant
Rising military tensions are reported in Iraq as pro-Iranian Shiite militias appear to be planning attacks on American forces, debkafile's exclusive sources report from Washington and Baghdad. Tehran is furious over Washington's decision to retain a number of US troops in Iraq, possibly as UN peacekeepers, after the pullout pledged by President Barak Obama to start on September 1
Administration officials are holding intense consultations with UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon for the US detachment staying on in Iraq to be reclassified as international peacekeepers. This means that not all the American troops due to withdraw in six weeks will in fact do so.
Just last Friday, July 16, Vice President Joe Biden told a Democratic Party event in Nashville, Tennessee, shortly after returning from a visit to Iraq: "We will have brought home 95,000. There is no one in the military who thinks we cannot do that. I do not have a doubt in my mind that we will be able to meet the commitment of having only 50,000 troops there and it will not in any way affect the physical stability of Iraq."
But then, on Wednesday night, July 21, General Ray Odierno, commander of the US forces in Iraq, said the American army is busy reinforcing its bases and preparing its forces in anticipation of attacks by at least three Shiite militias recently trained in Iran to strike American targets in Iraq.
He also said the US drawdown was progressing on schedule, with about 74,000 troops currently in the country. According to the Obama administration's drawdown timetable, U.S. forces will number just 50,000 by the end of August and drop to zero by the end of 2011 in time with the transition to Iraqi agencies.
However, for the second time in a week, the American general warned of an Iranian threat to US forces. debkafile's military sources report that the new state of combat alert may well delay the departure of some of the troops scheduled to leave Iraq by Sept. 1. Instead of preparing for their exit they have been pressed into work on new defense systems for US bases. If tensions with Iran continue to rise, the next batch of 24,000 troops due to withdraw may have to stay on after that date.
General Odierno named the three Iraqi pro-Iranian militias preparing for attack as Ketaib Hizballah (the Iraqi branch of the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group); Asaib Ahl al-Haq -The League of the Righteous; and the Promised Day Brigade.
In his first warning of July 13, the general mentioned only the Ketaib Hizballah, but on Wednesday, he said US officials have confirmed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Al Qods Brigades are training and funding the three militias.
debkafile's Iranian sources report that Tehran refuses to countenance the transformation of the 24,000 US troops remaining in Iraq into UN peacekeepers for three reasons:
1. Their blue caps will authorize them to enforce UN Security Council sanctions against Iran in the Persian Gulf region.
2. In their dual role as US combat troops, there may be pressed into service for an American military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Iran's leaders took note of recent US media reports that the Obama administration had put a military option against Iran back on the table of Pentagon planners.
3. Intelligence-gatherers in Iraq have warned Tehran that the Obama administration is resolved on a harder line against any Iranian meddling – military or political – in Iraq. They understand that Washington is determined to install a power-sharing government in Baghdad between the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his rival Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqia party won the last elections.
This coalition would push Iran and its Shiite pawns out of the new administration's governing institutions.
Tehran has roped friendly Syrian president Bashar Assad into a scheme for thwarting the American design.
At his invitation, the pro-Tehran Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr visited Damascus on Saturday, July 17 together with Allawi, for talks on a combined scheme to torpedo Washington's plans for Iraq.
Until now, it was assumed in Washington and Persian Gulf capitals that Iran would only activate its terrorist surrogates in Iraq and the region in response to a direct US or Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities.
debkafile's military sources report that this evaluation has been radically revised in the wake of disturbing military and political moves in Iraq.
Possible Iranian surrogate attacks on American forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf are now being considered as realistic on a track aside from – or an offshoot of – the events surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.