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Iran, militias it backs have increased threats against US troops in Syria: Pentagon

The Pentagon said Iraq’s government is still facing difficulties “to assert control” over Iran-backed militias in the country.

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Iran forces and militias backed by Tehran posed an increased threat to US troops in Syria during the last quarter of 2021, a report from the Pentagon said.

Iran-aligned militias also continued to pose a threat to US personnel in Iraq during the quarter, according to the report, which describes US government activities in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) in Iraq and Syria.

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The latest report, dated February 8, 2022, assessed activities and developments between October 1, 2021 and December 31, 2021.

OIR was initially formed in 2014 to defeat ISIS “while setting the conditions for follow-on activities to increase regional stability.”

During the most recent period, Iraq’s PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt, and attacks on US forces in Syria increased.

But Sean O’Donnell, the acting inspector general, said the US would continue to report on the status of OIR, “including the counter-ISIS mission, the effects of malign actors on the mission, and US government efforts to address the underlying factors that influence stability in Iraq and Syria.”

The report cited an October 20, 2021 attack on Coalition forces at Al-Tanf in Syria and at least two other attacks by Iran-backed militias on Coalition troops.

“The [US Defense Intelligence] DIA reported that Iran-aligned forces continued to support Syrian regime operations across Syria and continued to expand their freedom of movement, particularly in eastern Syria, under the pretext of conducting operations against ISIS,” the Pentagon’s report said.

Iran is also looking to secure its transportation links from Iraq to Lebanon “and expand its influence in the region.”

To do so, Iran and groups it backs continued to foster ties with Arab tribal communities in eastern Syria during the last quarter of 2021, the Pentagon said.

The DIA said Iran funds and trains local militias, including a “newly formed tribal group in eastern Syria called the Hashemiyoon Brigade.”

Iraq

In Iraq, Iran-backed militias continued to threaten US personnel despite “mostly” pausing attacks during the quarter. This could have been due to their desire to “manage escalation and evaluate US intentions” after the Pentagon ended its combat role in Iraq on December 31.

An adjustment of troop status was announced last summer after Kadhimi met with US President Joe Biden. The former had come under increasing pressure from pro-Iran groups over foreign troops inside Iraq. This was exacerbated by the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the deputy chief of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the militias continued to call on supporters to help “evict the entire US presence from Iraq” and threatened to target US aircraft.

A US soldier is seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. (File Photo: Reuters)
A US soldier is seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. (File Photo: Reuters)

The Pentagon noted these militias’ access to portable air defense systems. “For example, the DIA noted that a hybrid surface-to-air missile/ UAV system, referred to as a 358, and which is capable of engaging US aircraft was recovered near Tuz Khurmatu Airfield in Salah ad Din province this quarter,” according to the report.

“The DIA said that militia-affiliated media insinuated that the system’s discovery was a warning for US forces. The 358 is an Iranian-made system.”

The Pentagon said Iraq’s government is still facing difficulties “to assert control” over Iran-backed militias in the country.

“Iran and Iran-aligned militias continue to have strong ties to some elements of Iraq’s traditional security forces,” the DIA said in the report.

Specifically, Iraq’s Federal Police and Emergency Response Division and the Iraqi Army’s 5th and 8th Divisions have the “greatest Iranian influence,” the report said. “Officers sympathetic to Iranian or militia interests are scattered throughout the security services.”

But the DIA assessed that most police units remained committed to the Iraqi government and continued to follow orders from the prime minister in his role as commander-in-chief. This gave Iran-backed militias “limited ability” to shape ISF decision-making.

“Rather, Iran-aligned militias attempt to intimidate ISF units through information campaigns used to threaten security forces to stay away from Coalition forces, offset real-world weaknesses, and create false narratives in the case of defeats,” the Pentagon said.

ISIS

ISIS remained entrenched in Iraq and Syria during the quarter, O’Donnell said.

“Although the United States’ partner forces in Iraq and Syria were able to conduct successful operations against ISIS without Coalition involvement during the quarter, they also continued to rely on Coalition support,” he noted.

The report said that ISIS claimed responsibility for fewer attacks in Iraq and Syria compared with the previous quarter.

But it continued to exploit security gaps. The terrorist group’s senior leadership was still based in Syria, but ISIS “maintained a larger presence and greater capability in Iraq.”

Biden announced this month an operation, which took out ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi in Syria.

The Pentagon report cited a November operation by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that foiled a planned ISIS attack to free thousands of ISIS detainees from an SDF-run detention facility.

In January, ISIS fighters carried out a massive assault on the Ghwayran prison in Syria’s Hasakeh to free fellow terrorists.

The SDF later said they recaptured the prison, but over 300 people were reportedly killed.

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