US Suspends Anti-ISIS Mission in Iraq to Protect Against Iranian Reprisals

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Iraqi Commandos provide cover fire during an air assault exercise at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq
Iraqi Commandos provide cover fire during an air assault exercise at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Aug. 3, 2019. (Zachary Myers/U.S. Army)

The 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have suspended their anti-Islamic State mission to focus on force protection against expected retaliation from Iran or its proxies for the killing of Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the U.S. command said Sunday.

Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve's statement on its change of mission comes amid growing demands in Iraq's parliament for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

A series of rocket attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq over the last two months, including two more Saturday night, "has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh [another name for ISIS] and we have therefore paused these activities," the task force said in the statement.

The U.S. is still committed to the train, advise and assist mission against ISIS, but "our first priority is protecting all coalition personnel," according to the statement.

Related: Thousands of Marines Head to Middle East on Navy Ship as Iran Pledges Retaliation

The task force cited at least 11 wide-ranging rocket attacks over the last two months blamed on the Iranian-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH) militia, including one on a base near Kirkuk on Dec. 27 that killed an American contractor and wounded several U.S. troops.

In response to the Kirkuk attack, U.S. F-15 Strike Eagle fighters carried out airstrikes against five KH targets in Iraq and Syria.

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump ordered the strike that killed Soleimani, who has been charged by the U.S. as the mastermind behind attacks that killed hundreds of U.S. troops since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In a statement Sunday, OIR spokesman Col. Myles B. Coggins II confirmed that two more rocket attacks occurred in quick succession Saturday night on Baghdad's Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy, and Balad Air Base. There were no casualties.

The first attack occurred at about 7:46 p.m. local time on the Green Zone and the second at 7:50 p.m. at Balad, Coggins said, adding that the latest attacks brought the total over the last two months to 13.

He said that reports of a third attack near Mosul in northwestern Iraq were false.

The stunning move to suspend counter-terror missions against ISIS in Iraq came as the Iraqi parliament debated demands to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces to show the Baghdad government's condemnation of Soleimani's killing and avoid Iraq becoming the battlefield for a U.S.-Iran war.

In an address to parliament, acting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who announced his resignation in early December and has stayed on in a caretaker capacity, called for "urgent measures" to bring about the withdrawal of all of the estimated 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

"What happened was a political assassination," Abdul-Mahdi said of the strike that killed Soleimani, a KH leader and several others on an access road at Baghdad International Airport as they traveled in a two-vehicle convoy.

Abdul-Mahdi said U.S. forces must leave Iraq "for the sake of our national sovereignty."

Despite growing demands in the Iraqi parliament for a U.S. withdrawal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that "we are confident" the Iraqi people want American forces to remain.

However, Pompeo said on Fox News Sunday that "we will have to take a look at what we do" if the formal request for a withdrawal comes from the Iraqi government.

The strike that killed Soleimani has set the entire region on edge in anticipation of what form the vow of revenge from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will take and whether it will lead to full-scale war with the U.S.

In Tehran on Sunday, Hossan Dehghan, the former defense minister and now top military adviser to Khamenei, said the Iranian response would be limited to an attack on U.S. forces.

"The response for sure will be military and against military sites," Dehghan told CNN, while adding that Iran does not seek a wider war.

However, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami warned of reprisals that would not be limited to attacks on the U.S. military.

Iran's retaliation will be carried out across "a vast geography that will fire at will with determination for severe revenge," he said, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.

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

Read more: Trump Says 52 Targets Already Lined up if Iran Retaliates

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