Key Commander in ISIS Fight Sees No Increased Threat from Iran-Backed Troops

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An F/A-18E Super Hornet lands on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). The Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in order to defend American forces and interests in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dan Snow)
An F/A-18E Super Hornet lands on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). The Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in order to defend American forces and interests in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dan Snow)

U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Syria face no increased threat of attack from Iran or its proxies in Iraq and Syria despite White House warnings, a top coalition commander said Tuesday.

"No, there's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria," British Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, deputy commander for stability for Operation Inherent Resolve's Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, said in a video briefing to the Pentagon.

In response to repeated questions, Ghika stressed that he is not at odds with Trump administration and Pentagon officials, who have warned since May 3 of the threat posed by Iran and its militia proxies to the U.S. and its allies. Those warnings prompted a military buildup in the region, including the arrival of the aircraft carrier Lincoln ahead of schedule and deployment of B-52 Stratofortress bombers.

"I don't think there's a difference here at all," Ghika said. He noted the heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington marked by charges from National Security Adviser John Bolton of U.S. intelligence indicating that Iran is preparing attacks, but said again, "I don't think we're out of step with the White House at all."

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However, Ghika referred specifically to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes militias backed by Iran.

The coalition has seen "no change in their posture since the recent exchange between the United States and Iran, and we hope and expect that that will continue," he said.

"We're aware of their presence, clearly," Ghika said of the Iranian-backed militias within the PMF. "We monitor them with a whole range of others. If the threat level seems to go up, then we'll raise our force protection measures accordingly."

At the White House on Tuesday, President Donald Trump dismissed a report in The New York Times that he is considering sending 120,000 troops to the region to defend against Iran, in addition to the carrier, more air assets, an amphibious warship and Patriot air defense batteries.

"I think it's fake news, OK?" he told reporters as he left the White House for Louisiana to promote energy independence.

"Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that," Trump said. "Hopefully, we're not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we would send a hell of a lot more troops than that."

Trump’s remarks were carried by C-Span.

In the Russian city of Sochi, where he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an open session, "We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran."

But, he added, "we have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will certainly respond in an appropriate fashion."

Through their official news outlets, Iranian officials have rejected U.S. charges that attacks are being planned while boasting of their military's ability to defend the nation to the point that they now consider a U.S. aircraft carrier more of a target than a threat.

"An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past. But now, it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities," said Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard's air force, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA).

Currently, there are an estimated 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and another 2,000 in Syria, although Trump announced in December his intention to withdraw the forces in Syria.

He has since amended that decision, and the plan now is to keep at least 200 troops in northeastern Syria and another 200 near the border with Jordan, according to Pentagon officials. There have been no announcements as yet of any drawdown of the U.S. presence in Syria.

In the Pentagon briefing, Ghika said that Iran and its proxies are not part of the continuing mission of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve against the remnants of the Islamic State since the fall in March of the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz, the last piece of territory controlled by ISIS.

He said that ISIS' "aspirations for a global caliphate have been destroyed," but that's "not the end of operations."

ISIS is regrouping into an underground network of cells in Iraq and Syria that are still ambushing security patrols and spreading terrorism, Ghika said.

"Iran is not a part of our mission," he said. "We are here to defeat ISIS."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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