U.S. and Iran Prepare for Escalation in Iraq, Where Coronavirus May Make Conflict Worse

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The United States and Iran appear prepared for an escalation in their common battlefield of Iraq, even as all three nations battle a pandemic that experts say may serve to only inflame tensions.

President Donald Trump warned Wednesday that Iran was planning a “sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq” and later cited unspecified intelligence he said indicated potential plots by local Tehran-aligned forces there.

“Don’t do it,” the president warned at a press briefing that evening, threatening that his “response will be bigger” this time after U.S. airstrikes last month targeted Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah positions but also reportedly killed Iraqi troops, police officers and a civilian.

On Thursday, Iranian military chief of staff Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri stated his forces were “closely monitoring the activities and moves of Americans,” who would face the “fiercest reactions” should they strike. He denied Iran’s responsibility for the recent spate of rocket attacks targeting military positions hosting U.S. and allied troops, instead calling them a “natural reaction by the Iraqi people” toward a foreign power who has increasingly acted unilaterally.

Similar sentiments were expressed by an increasingly vocal chorus of influential paramilitary elements seeking to expel a U.S. presence originally tasked with defeating the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Though the U.S.-led coalition and these Iran-supported militias both battled the jihadi organization they now targeted one another in rounds of deadly violence that has rocked the already conflict-ravaged nation of Iraq.

Now, a new common foe emerged, the novel coronavirus that has swept throughout the Middle East as with nearly every other corner of the world. Instead of this mutual threat bringing adversaries together, Catholic University of America military fellow-in-residence Gil Barndollar called the disease “an extra factor that probably lends itself to escalation and miscalculations.”

“In terms of the decisionmaking of the Iranian regime and the Iraqi militias that largely answer to it, you’re more likely to see an escalatory cycle by adding another factor to their calculations,” Barndollar, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank in Washington, told Newsweek on a press call Thursday. He argued Iran was “less apt to back down in face of escalations and provocations by the U.S. as a result of coronavirus.”

As the U.S. attempts to antagonize its adversaries with potential further military action, Barndollar warned: “You look at what we’re doing directly and it’s counterproductive to our interests.”

In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie also argued that the COVID-19 crisis likely makes Iran “more dangerous in terms of decision-making more dangerous rather than less dangerous.” The Islamic Republic has been subject to strict U.S. trade restrictions since Trump’s 2018 exit from a multilateral nuclear deal, and Iranian officials have called for sanctions relief as it battles the disease.

Iran was among the first nations outside of China to be severely hit by COVID-19 earlier this year and has since recorded about 50,000 cases, of which nearly 3,200 died and over 16,700 recovered. The U.S., however, now stands with what is by far the world’s largest coronavirus disease count with some 216,700 testing positive, of whom over 5,100 died and around 8,700 recovered.

As for Iraq, the country has reported only about 728 instances of the new coronavirus disease as of Thursday, including 52 deaths and 182 recoveries. The true number is feared much higher, however, due to low testing rates and an underdeveloped health care system that Barndollar warned could lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases in spite of Iraq’s anti-epidemic measures.

“I expect there may be an explosion of coronavirus cases, maybe on a more delayed timeline than some other places,” he said.

As Baghdad strives to keep its number down, the disease has proven a major test for both Washington and Tehran. The two longtime foes have shifted the blame abroad as they struggle to contain worsening outbreaks at home, accusing one another of spreading misinformation.

Sam Heller, the senior analyst on non-state armed groups at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told Newsweek that “COVID-19 may accelerate some processes that were already in motion, or serve as political cover for other decisions.” While “it’s an open question how the pandemic will, more generally, affect countries’ willingness to deploy troops abroad as they face this public health crisis at home,” he argued, both the U.S. and Iraqi militias had an interest in keeping up pressure, even amid the pandemic.

“By keeping up attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, Iran-linked paramilitaries can ensure that the status of foreign forces in the country and the end of the U.S. ‘occupation’ stay near the top of the political agenda in Baghdad,” Heller highlighted.

“Moreover, when the U.S. responds to those provocations unilaterally, it further damages the United States’ relationship with its official Iraqi partners and turns more of the Iraqi political spectrum against a continued U.S. presence,” he added. “What seems like the likely result, over time, is the expulsion of the U.S. from Iraq, ceding substantial influence in the country to Iran and its Iraqi allies.”

This is the ultimate goal of groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose Karbala province director linked anti-epidemic efforts to battle against the U.S. and ISIS. “Just as we have defeated ISIS and the American occupation, we will defeat the virus and the Iraqi people will live in prosperity,” Saadi said Thursday on the Iraqi television program Your Voice is Heard.

Defying a non-binding Iraqi vote to facilitate the withdrawal of foreign forces, the U.S. has remained in the country since killing Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport in January. The Pentagon has, however, pulled troops from positions such as Al-Qaim Base, Al-Qayyarah Airfield and K1 Airbase, citing both ISIS victories and concerns over COVID-19.

Heller argued, however, this movement “looks like a step to consolidate those forces in fewer, better-defended locations, where they can benefit from things like missile defense systems.”

It was not just hardline militias that expressed frustration at the U.S. approach in Iraq. The country’s leaders and nearly every major political actor spoke out last month against last month’s airstrikes as well as Trump’s threats to potentially punish Baghdad if it moved forward with attempts to push U.S. troops out of the country.

“I think the U.S.-Iraq relationship is at its lowest point. There’s a lot of distrust on both sides,” Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at the Al-Bayan Center in Baghdad told Newsweek. “The United States is clearly using more sticks than carrots to encourage Iraq to align with its interests—carrying out unilateral military strikes on targets within Iraq’s territory and subtle threats to sanction the Iraqi government.”

On the street, Iraqi protesters have defied quarantine measures to continue rising up against a government they accused of failing to fix the country’s embattled economy, infrastructure and civil society, all while representing foreign interests instead of their own. Already facing a crackdown by security forces, they now contended with spiraling geopolitical tensions and a deadly outbreak.

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, an academic researcher at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, told Newsweek that “tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Kata’ib Hizbullah in Iraq show complete disregard for Iraq’s sovereignty and the Iraqi people, who have lately been identifying themselves as central to Iraq’s sovereignty.”

“Protestors have been making it clear that they do not recognize the government as legitimate, which thus also means they also do not recognize its allies that do recognize it as such. This includes both Iran and the U.S.,” Hassani explained. “This is complex as Iraqis do recognize that both Iran and the U.S. assisted Iraq in the war on Daesh (ISIS), and appreciate that any state allies should assist at such times.”

Rather than continue down their warpath and further putting civilians at risk, Hassani said the U.S., Iran and Iraq “should be focusing entirely on the growing number of COVID-19 cases.”