National Security & Defense

The Approaching (and Necessary) Showdown with Iran in Iraq

(File photo: US Army)

We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq; any such American force will become a primary target for our group. We fought them before, and we are ready to resume fighting.

That was what a Kataib Hezbollah (KH) spokesman told Reuters yesterday, after learning that the U.S. is sending a special-operations task force to Iraq. Albeit long overdue, this deployment offers a welcome opportunity to escalate the U.S. air campaign against ISIS and enable better direction of coalition efforts on the ground. Regardless, the threats of blood-soaked sectarian fanatics Kataib Hezbollah cannot be taken lightly. As I’ve noted previously, KH is an Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) proxy force and an element of the Shiite-militia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq.

This latest KH threat demands special attention. For a start, the threat is Iranian in origin. This is proved by the fact that Iran’s Press-TV propaganda news outlet was crowing about the threat yesterday. But KH’s threat also flows with recent Iranian strategy: In recent months, KH has been waging an escalating terrorist campaign against Iraq’s government and moderate Iraqi Shiite leaders. Put simply, Iran is using KH as a deniable actor to try to coerce Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi to yield to Iran’s dominion. Iran wants Abadi to believe that he has no choice but to bend in fealty to their power-drill autocracy. In that regard, I’d wager that this U.S. special-operations deployment is designed to consolidate Abadi’s government as well as confront ISIS. Indeed, Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at this yesterday when he told Congress that “despite [Abadi’s] efforts, sectarian politics and Iranian influence have made building a multi-sectarian Iraqi Security Force (ISF) difficult. . . . ” Carter added, “The raids in Iraq will be done at the invitation of the Iraqi government and focused on defending its borders and building the ISF’s own capacity.”

#share#Iran doesn’t like this message. Consequentially, the coming days will be critical for Iraq and for the United States. After all, Iran will watch carefully for signs of timidity from the Obama administration. As I noted last week, since 2011, when Iran’s leaders suffered no consequences for their attempt to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant, they have believed President Obama is weak. As such, if the IRGC leadership senses American weakness, it will take hostile action (directly, via KH, or via covert subgroups) against U.S. interests. Recognizing this threat, President Obama must make clear that terrorism against U.S. interests will meet punishing reprisals. To be explicit, the IRGC must know that America will meet force with force.

#related#Nevertheless, American resolve alone won’t be enough. As I’ve explained, the key to defeating the Islamic State and restoring Iraqi cross-sectarian stability rests with the Sunni tribes of Anbar and eastern Syria. As an extension, the U.S. forces now heading to Iraq must have a remit to engage the tribes and mobilize a unified Sunni insurgency against ISIS.

But we must be clear-eyed. American victory doesn’t require just the destruction of ISIS, it requires Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s realization that America will not abandon Iraq to his hordes.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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