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Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria increasingly threatening U.S. troops: Report

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A report issued by the U.S. Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) said Iranian proxies in Iraq are increasingly threatening and provoking American troops in Iraq and Syria.

The report said several Iranian-backed militias also operate in the area, and their presence creates the potential for violence with U.S. troops and U.S.-backed forces.

OIR is the official name of the U.S.-led coalition’s mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The report further stated that in Iraq, the threat against U.S. troops posed by Iranian proxies has intensified, noting that Tehran deployed between “100 to 150 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps— Quds Forces (IRGC-Quds Force) and Iranian Ministry of Intelligence personnel” to Iraq in support of Tehran-allied Shiite militias during the quarter (July 1 thru September 30).”

“The DoD reported to the DoD OIG that if left unchecked, Iranian-sponsored harassment of U.S. forces could increase, and Iranian influence operations could increase as they vie for influence in the [newly elected Iraqi] government,” the IG also reported, adding, “According to the DoD, Iranian proxies continued threat messaging against the U.S. presence in Iraq and working to gain access to strategic locations for targeting and surveillance.”

The inspector general acknowledged that Iranian proxies “likely” carried out two recent attacks against U.S. targets: mortars that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and rocket attacks fired at the Basrah Airport near the U.S. Consulate General.

Trump administration officials condemned Iran for the attacks, warning that Tehran would be held responsible for attacks by its proxies targeting American troops and facilities.

The Pentagon IG noted that the Trump administration has expanded its Syria mission to include the removal of Iran and Iranian proxies.

Iranian proxies in Iraq, which include the Baghdad-sanctioned Iranian Militias in Iraq and Sham (IMIS), are also are increasing their “threatening posture toward US personnel.

According to the report, the Department of Defense (DoD) also reported that Iran has continued to provide significant support to armed groups in Iraq, including missiles and rockets that are transported through border crossing points.

Other support included combat intelligence training, munitions, and Iranian military grade hardware such as drone surveillance operations. Iranian-backed groups have also engaged in running illegal checkpoints, smuggling, drug, and oil trafficking, bribery, and extortion, with uncontrolled Iranian proxy activity in Basrah and Anbar provinces serving as examples for the lawlessness of proxy groups inside Iraq.

The report further continued that Iraq’s security forces continued to exhibit systemic weaknesses this quarter, including poor intelligence fusion, operational insecurity, ongoing corruption, and overly centralized leadership, among other problems.

The DoD said that the ISF is “years, if not decades” away from ending its reliance on Coalition assistance.19 According to the DoD, the ISF remains heavily reliant on Coalition forces to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

The DoD also reported, according to the report, that it will take “a generation of Iraqi officers with continuous exposure to Coalition advisers” to change cultures and institutions that inhibit the establishment of a self-reliant Iraqi fighting force. The Defense Department stated that its strategy to ensure the long-term defeat of ISIS continued to rely on Iraqi fighting forces, and that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq “as long as needed” to achieve ISIS’s “enduring defeat.”

The DoD reiterated to the DoD OIG that under OIR the DoD’s resources and authorities are focused exclusively on the “enduring defeat” of ISIS.

To that end, the United States continued to support the SDF in northeastern Syria and the Mughawir al Thawra (MaT) at the At Tanf garrison, a southeastern desert outpost near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders.

Other Administration and DoS officials discussed this quarter a broader three-pronged U.S. policy for Syria. These policy goals include removing Iran and Iranian proxies from the country, influencing the outcome of the Syrian civil war now in its 8th year, and stabilizing areas of northeast Syria liberated from ISIS.

While it remains uncertain what parts of this policy will rely on DoD resources, these non-military goals could keep the U.S. military involved in Syria after the defeat of ISIS.

In September, National Security Adviser John Bolton stated explicitly that U.S. troops would not leave Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.

Bolton’s statement was the first time the Administration had linked continued U.S. military deployment in Syria to Iran’s presence in the country, although the DoD said that the basis for its presence in Syria remains the “enduring defeat” of ISIS.

Testifying at a congressional hearing, Robert Karem, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, reiterated that U.S. military objectives remained “squarely focused on the ISIS fight,” and said that he would “disaggregate” U.S. policy objectives regarding Iran and the civil war from military activities in Syria.

The DoD has also stated that the troop presence in Syria has the “ancillary benefit” of deterring Iran, and that the hard fighting that remains in the campaign to defeat ISIS will buy time for the U.S. diplomatic corps to achieve these political end states.

U.S. officials said that the U.S. troop presence under OIR supported efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to Syria’s civil war. Assistant Secretary Karem testified at the hearing that the U.S. troop deployment in Syria provided “residual benefits” to U.S. diplomats seeking to end the civil war. The DoD provided the DoD OIG with a similar response. It said that the U.S. military presence in Syria gave the United States “leverage” to influence a political resolution to the war.

However, the report added, by linking the U.S. troop presence to Iran’s presence and to the resolution of the Syrian civil war, these officials raise questions about when the U.S. troop presence will end: with the defeat of ISIS, the withdrawal of Iranian forces, or the end of the civil war. For more on U.S. policy in Syria, see the classified appendix.

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