The top U.S. military commander shot out a warning Thursday to Iranian-backed militias and their supporters that attempts to storm the American embassy in Baghdad would be akin to running into a “buzzsaw” and that the U.S. will strike again to prevent further attacks.
The comments from Joint Chiefs chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley come following a Pentagon decision Tuesday to deploy 750 paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne to Kuwait and the rapid reinforcement of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with 100 Marines assigned to the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response–Central Command.
A U.S. defense official told Military Times that several thousand additional troops could be deployed to the Middle East in the wake of demonstrations stemming from U.S. airstrikes on Dec. 29 that struck an Iran-backed militia known as Kata’ib Hizbollah — a group U.S. officials have blamed for a recent spate of rocket attacks against Iraqi bases housing coalition troops.
Those additional troops have not yet deployed but are prepared to do so if needed, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. So far, just the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment with the 82nd Airborne have boarded Air Force C17 Globemaster aircraft on Wednesday bound for Kuwait.
Supporters of the Iran-backed militia attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, prompting U.S. officials to beef up security with additional Marines and other assets.
Milley described the protesters camped in front of the American embassy as core members of the Iranian supported militia group Kata’ib Hizbollah. The Iran-backed militia “wanted to get lots of attention” by throwing Molotov cocktails, and even set up a command center during the demonstrations, Milley explained to reporters Thursday.
"We are very confident that the integrity of that embassy is strong and it is highly unlikely to be physically overrun by anyone. There is sufficient combat power there, the air and ground. Anyone who attempts to overrun that will run into a buzzsaw,” Milley told reporters Thursday.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Military Times Wednesday that the security situation around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had improved and that Iraq deployed forces “to fulfill their duty to protect our diplomatic mission.”
The State Department spokesperson said that “as of Wednesday evening, most individuals have left the immediate area.”
“Though the situation around the Embassy perimeter has calmed significantly, post security posture remains heightened,” the spokesperson explained.
There have been 11 rocket attacks against Iraqi bases housing coalition troops in Iraq over the last two months. A barrage of rockets that struck a Kirkuk military installation on Dec. 27 killed an American contractor and wounded four U.S. troops.
The U.S. says Iran and its proxy forces are responsible for the strikes.
“We know that the intent of this last attack was, in fact, to kill American soldiers sailors, airmen and marines…. 31 rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot. That’s designed to inflict damage and kill, Milley explained to reporters describing the Kirkuk attack.
While the U.S. carried out what the Pentagon has described as “defensive strikes" against Kata’ib Hizbollah, U.S. officials believe Iran and its proxy forces may seek to retaliate for the airstrikes.
“Do I think they may do something? Yes. And they will likely regret it. We are prepared to exercise self defense and we are prepared to deter further bad heavier by these groups, all of which are sponsored and directed and resourced by Iran," Esper said.
U.S. officials have complained to the Iraqi government that it needs to do more to address Iran-backed militias that have been attacking installations across the country. Many of these groups fall under Iraq security forces known as Popular Mobilization Forces.
PMF militia groups sprung out of the chaos of ISIS’ rampage across Iraq in 2014, and many of them are Shia organizations supported by Iran.
"We haven’t seen sufficient action on that front…they need to get left of the problem and stop these attacks form happening and to get the Iranian influence out of their country,” Esper said.
PMF groups are relatively popular in Iraq with backing by powerful members of the Iraqi government in parliament complicating efforts to rein in the organizations.
“Capability, in my view, having spent a fair amount of time in Iraq, they have the capability. It’s a question of will. It’s a question of political will, and that’s not for us to decide,” Milley said, responding to a reporter’s question Thursday about whether Iraq had the capability to stop Iran-backed militias.
Iran is known to use its extensive network of militia and proxy groups across the Middle East to carry out attacks. This strategy has made it difficult to assign direct blame to Tehran for its malign behavior in the region.
But U.S. officials in recent days have emphasized that President Donald Trump’s administration will hold Iran responsible for the actions of its proxy forces.
A U.S. State Department official told reporters Monday that Sunday’s strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah were about restoring deterrence and “not giving Iran the fiction of deniability” by using proxy forces to orchestrate deadly attacks across the Middle East.
“The game has changed, and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said Thursday.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.