On Thursday, CNN reported U.S. officials are concerned Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups have moved to a “heightened level of preparation” this week, raising the potential for a possible attack after the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
One official described the Iraqi militia preparations as “worrisome” and reportedly told CNN “We have indications” of militia preparations. The official did not provide CNN with evidence of a specific attack but said all the weapons “capability” the Iran-backed militias need is already in Iraq, noting the Iran-backed militias regularly maintain stockpiles of rockets and artillery.
Iran threatened a “calculated and decisive answer” to those responsible for last month’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist who was regarded as the father of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has blamed the U.S. and Israel for the attack though no group has claimed responsibility for killing Fakhrizadeh.
The warnings of a potential attack also come weeks before the one-year anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani while he traveled in Baghdad, Iraq on Jan. 3, 2020.
On Thursday, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said he believes the US has “achieved a certain level of contested deterrence” but warned the Iranian government still feels “pressure to avenge the death of Soleimani.”
CNN reported U.S. officials have also observed Iran moving defensive military equipment along its coasts. Those U.S. officials believe the move may indicate Iran anticipates an attack from Israel or the U.S. The U.S. officials told CNN that Iran’s military moves appear defensive for now, but that they are set up if the country’s leaders decide to launch an attack on Israeli or U.S. positions.
Last week, the Trump administration reportedly ordered a drawdown of personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for a “de-risking” period in anticipation of the anniversary of Soleimani’s death.
On Thursday, the U.S. Air Force also deployed two B-52H “Stratofortress” bombers from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to the CENTCOM area of responsibility on a short-notice mission. According to an Air Force press release McKenzie said “the short-notice, non-stop mission was designed to underscore the U.S. military’s commitment to its regional partners, while also validating the ability to rapidly deploy combat power anywhere in the world.”
Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have previously launched attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq. In December of 2019, the Iran-linked Kata’ib Hizbollah launched a rocket attack that resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen and the injury of four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In response, the U.S. launched retaliatory strikes on the Kata’ib Hizbollah.
In response to the December 2019 U.S. airstrikes, hundreds of demonstrators, supporting the Iran-backed militias in Iraq attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, smashing the reception area and attempting to set fires at the embassy compound. The back and forth responses between the U.S. and the Iran-backed militias culminated in the strike that killed Soleimani just days later.