(CNSNews.com) – U.S. Central Command on Tuesday contradicted the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, who said earlier in the day that there “has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon by video link from Baghdad, British Army Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika was asked a number of times about U.S. government assertions about stepped-up Iranian threats towards coalition forces in Iraq.
“No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “We’re aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them along with a whole range of others, because that’s the environment we’re in.”
Ghika, who is deputy commander for stability for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the mission to defeat ISIS, said the coalition was monitoring the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia groups “carefully, and if the threat level perceived to go up then we’ll raise our force protection measures accordingly.”
In an unusual move, U.S. Central Command later issued a statement contradicting the British major general.
“Recent comments from OIR’s Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” said CENTCOM spokesman, U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban.
He said CENTCOM, in coordination with OIR, “has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria.”
“As a result, OIR is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq,” Urban said.
U.S. administration officials have been warning about increased Iranian threats. Early this month National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the U.S. was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the region to send a message to Iran, “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then paid an unscheduled visit to Baghdad to discuss the threats, and said afterwards he had spoken to Iraqi leaders “about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country.”
Administration officials have made clear that the Iranian regime would be held responsible for the actions of its “proxies” as well.
Among those “proxies” are some of the Iraqi Shi’ite militias who are part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a grouping established to help the Iraqi government counter ISIS in the country.
They include Iranian-backed militias which the U.S. blames – together with their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force handlers – for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
During Tuesday’s press briefing Ghika described the PMF as a broad range of groups.
Many were “compliant with the rule of law” and had placed themselves under the authority of the Iraqi forces, while other elements were “non-compliant actors.”
‘Iran is no part of our mission’
Ghika also stressed more than once that the coalition was in Iraqi to defeat ISIS, also known as Daesh – and not to focus on Iran.
“Our mission is to defeat Daesh,” he said. “I have no part of Iran in any of my orders, in any of my directives, or in any of my planning documents. Iran is no part of our mission,” Ghika said. “We are here at the invitation of the Iraqi government to defeat Daesh, not to have anything to do with Iran.”
When he visited U.S. troops in Iraq’s Anbar province last Christmas, President Trump spoke of keeping them there to “watch very closely over any potential re-formation of ISIS – and also to watch over Iran.”
In February, Trump told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that one of the reasons he wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after withdrawing those in Syria was “to watch Iran.”
Pressed on the question of the Iranian threat, Ghika said he did not see a difference between his assessment and the U.S. government position.
“There are a range of threats to American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “We monitor them all, Iranian-backed forces is clearly one of them.”
He added that there were a large number of militias in Iraq and Syria “and we don’t see any increased threat from many of them at this stage.”
When a reporter asked him specifically whether the threat level posted at the coalition base in Baghdad had been raised, Ghika invited him to go to the base and see for himself.
In a notice posted on Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad advised U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq, to avoid places known to be U.S. citizen gathering points, to keep a low profile, and to be aware of their surroundings.
Iraq is one of 14 countries where the current State Department travel advisory is at level four – “do not travel” – a designation last updated in Iraq’s case on April 9 this year.
The other three levels are: “reconsider travel” (level three), “exercise increased caution” (level two) and “exercise normal precautions” (level one).