US expects more attacks from Iran-backed groups, says Defence Secretary Esper

US expects more attacks from Iran-backed groups, says Defence Secretary Esper
The Pentagon warned that if the 'provocative behaviour' of pro-Iran groups in Iraq continues, they will 'regret' it.
3 min read
02 January, 2020
Defence Secretary Mark Esper issued a stern warning to pro-Iran groups in Iraq [Getty]
The Pentagon warned on Thursday that the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah group that stormed the US embassy in Baghdad would would carry out more attacks on US facilities - and would regret it.

"The provocative behaviour has been out there for months... So do I think they may do something? Yes. And they will likely regret it," Defence Secretary Mark Esper told reporters.

"We are prepared to exercise self-defencee, and we are prepared to deter further bad behaviour from these groups, all of which are sponsored, directed and resourced by Iran." 

Supporters of Iraq's powerful Hashd al-Shaabi military force laid siege to the embassy Tuesday in outrage at US air strikes that killed 25 of their fighters, but pulled back on Wednesday after an order from the group.

Elite Iraqi troops were deployed Thursday to secure the US embassy. More than a dozen black armoured vehicles of the US-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service deployed on the embassy's streets in the capital's Green Zone to reinforce security there. 

The unprecedented attack on the American mission in Baghdad - in which intruders threw rocks, laid fires and graffitied walls - sparked fears of a wider proxy war between Iran and the United States, both of them close allies of Iraq.

The violence has also troubled Iraqis who have taken to the streets since October in massive rallies denouncing government corruption, a lack of jobs and poor public services. 

The largest grassroots protests Iraq in decades has seen tens of thousands flooding the streets across the capital and Shiite-majority south.

Nearly 460 people have been killed and around 25,000 wounded in protest-related violence.

Demonstrators have worried that the dramatic developments outside the US embassy would either steal their thunder or be mistaken for an extension of their own movement.

The attack on the embassy highlighted new strains in the US-Iraqi relationship, which officials from both countries have described to AFP as the "coldest" in years.

The United States led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since.

But its influence has waned compared with that of Tehran, which has long and carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam's reign. 

Both Washington and Tehran backed Iraqi security forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, but the two have been at loggerheads since the United States pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018.

Read more: US attack on Iraqi militia further entrenches US military in Middle East

Iraqi officials have feared that their country could be used as an arena for score-settling between Iran and the US.

"Before this episode, there was an agreement that in post-IS Iraq, the US and Iran don't attack each other directly," said Renad Mansour, an expert at the London-based Chatham House.

"That norm is being challenged now because Iran and its allies are in a bad spot. That is very destabilising, because they will seek to change the status quo."

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