Bolstering sustained global skepticism of President Donald Trump's promises to bring home U.S. forces from the Middle East, the Pentagon deployed hundreds of soldiers to the region Tuesday and is reportedly preparing to send up to thousands more troops in the coming days amid ongoing protests at the American Embassy in Baghdad.
The protests in the so-called Green Zone around the embassy come in response to deadly U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the weekend and years-long occupation of the region.
Confirming the initial deployment in a statement Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that "at the direction of the Commander in Chief, I have authorized the deployment of an infantry battalion from the Immediate Response Force (IRF) of the 82nd Airborne Division to the U.S. Central Command area of operations in response to recent events in Iraq."
"Approximately 750 soldiers will deploy to the region immediately, and additional forces from the IRF are prepared to deploy over the next several days," Esper added. "This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today. The United States will protect our people and interests anywhere they are found around the world."
Since Tuesday evening, Military Times, The Associated Press, and Fox News have reported that about 4,000 U.S. troops could be deployed to the region this week, citing unnamed defense sources. Those reports followed President Donald Trump taking to Twitter Tuesday morning to accuse Iran, without any evidence, of "orchestrating an attack" on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where demonstrators have gathered for two days following the U.S. airstrikes.
The airstrikes were retaliation for a rocket attack last week on an Iraqi military base "near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk" that killed a U.S. civilian contractor and wounded several American service members and Iraqi personnel. The airstrikes provoked global condemnation, including from Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who called them "a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the region."
According to The New York Times' account of the demonstrations around the U.S. Embassy Tuesday:
While the protesters carried the flags of Iraq and a range of militia groups, the most prominent was that of Kataib Hezbollah, the group targeted by the United States [in the weekend airstrikes, which has denied involvement in the rocket attack].
A spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, Mohammed Muhi, said his group intended to erect tents in the street in front of the United States Embassy for an opened-ended sit-in to pressure the Americans to leave Iraq.
"We will not leave these tents until the embassy and the ambassador leave Iraq," Mr. Muhi said.
About 1,000 militia members remained camped out in front of the embassy overnight.
Al Jazeera reported that "hundreds of Iraqi members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and their supporters hurled stones at the United States Embassy in Baghdad for a second day on Wednesday, while security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades in a bid to drive them away."
"The PMF later on Wednesday issued a statement calling on its supporters to withdraw from the compound in response to an appeal by the Iraqi government, saying 'your message has been received,'" Al Jazeera noted. "Some of the protesters could be seen taking down their tents, while others vowed to stay."
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 1, 2020
Paul Pillar, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University, addressed the recent developments in the region in a piece titled "Wearing Out a Welcome in Iraq," published Tuesday by Responsible Statecraft, an online platform of the new Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (QI).
Noting that "the newest outburst in Baghdad" is a response to the U.S. airstrikes, Pillar wrote that "Iraqis noticed the obvious disproportionality between the U.S. airstrikes and what they were retaliating for, and this disproportionality was part of what underlay the angry popular response. Another part was the fact that a foreign power was taking it on itself to conduct a military attack inside Iraq against Iraqi citizens."
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Regarding the about 5,200 U.S. troops that are currently in the country, he added:
U.S. military personnel are in Iraq supposedly on an anti-ISIS mission. Under the Trump administration, there appears to have been mission creep, in Iraq as well as Syria, in which somehow confronting Iran has become part of a new mission. That mission has never been justified. No one has explained exactly how the current state of Iraqi-Iranian relations threatens U.S. interests—beyond any threat to the very same U.S. military personnel in Iraq, which brings circular reasoning into play. Seemingly forgotten among all this is how Iran, and the Iraqi elements it supports, also have been performing an anti-ISIS mission.
Pillar argued that "the United States would serve its own interests by letting that mission be performed by the locals best in position to perform it, and moving toward a withdrawal of its forces from Iraq."
"Let someone else worry about inflaming popular sentiment through perceived violations of sovereignty," he concluded. "Such a redirection of U.S. policy would take those troops out of harm's way. It would reduce the risk of a U.S.-Iranian clash, benefiting nobody, on an Iraqi battlefield. And it would reduce the chance of another U.S. Embassy being overrun by an angry mob."
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) warned in a pair of tweets Tuesday that "these strikes highlight the danger of the conflict with Iran escalating and triggering a war." He linked to a Newsweek report about the Iraqi prime minister's remark that the airstrikes "violated the goals and principles for which the international coalition is formed, pushing Iraq to review the relationship and the working security, political, and legal context in a manner that preserves the sovereignty and security of the country, protecting the lives of its children and promoting common interests."
I imagine those in the House who succumbed to the Pentagon’s demands are now regretting that they didn’t stand up more boldly to prevent another Middle East war.
We now need to pass @RepAnnaEshoo’s bill to prevent a full scale war with Iran w/o Congressional authorization. /2
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) December 31, 2019
The congressman also denounced members of the Democrat-controlled U.S. House for stripping from the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) a bipartisan amendment, which he sponsored, that would have blocked Trump from waging war on Iran without congressional approval. The tweets echoed Khanna's previous comments regarding the NDAA.
Shortly before the House approved the military spending measure last month, Khanna said in a joint statement with White House hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that "Congress should have used this National Defense Authorization Act to stop our endless wars. Instead, this bill does nothing to rein in out-of-control military spending, prevent unconstitutional war against Iran, limit the poisoning of Americans' drinking water, or end the obscenity of innocent children in Yemen being killed by U.S. bombs."
Khanna's calls for Congress to serve as a check on the Trump administration have come as the president has deployed thousands of troops to the Middle East in the past year alone while repeatedly vowing to end endless wars and bring U.S. soldiers home.
As John Feffer summarized for Foreign Policy in Focus a few months ago: "Trump's not bringing the troops home. He's been haphazardly deploying more troops, drones, and dollars abroad, while waging a shadow foreign policy for his own benefit."