WASHINGTON — The Pentagon made plans Monday to send an additional 2,500 U.S. Marines to the Middle East, the latest fallout from President Donald Trump’s order to kill a powerful Iranian general last week, but one that could increase the risk of the kind of grinding conflict that the president has vowed to avoid.
The reinforcements were disclosed on a day of confusing signals and fast-moving events after a U.S. commander in Baghdad wrote to the Iraqi military saying preparations would be made to withdraw U.S. forces following a nonbinding decision by the Iraqi parliament to expel American troops.
Although the letter from Marine Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III was authentic, the Pentagon later said it was a draft that should not have been released, insisting that no final decision had been made.
Adding to the sense of disarray in administration policy, the confusion over the letter came one day after the Pentagon announced it was suspending offensive operations against the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq — the chief justification for keeping 5,000 troops in the country — to focus on protecting its bases from potential Iranian attacks.
Although the president has bragged about eliminating Islamic State, which once controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, the latest clash with Iran may create new openings for a resurgence of the extremist militant group.
The incoming Marines are part of an amphibious readiness group that includes an assault ship resembling a small aircraft carrier, according to defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly. Two other Navy vessels, an amphibious transport dock ship and a dock landing ship, are part of the flotilla.
The warships are headed toward the Persian Gulf and could transit the Suez Canal within days, the officials said, entering a region where the Pentagon has already dispatched a 4,000-soldier brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division.
An unknown number of special operations troops are there in case Iran or its proxies launch attacks or violent protests against U.S. bases or interests.
The uncertainty over the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal did little to reassure U.S. national security and foreign policy experts, who worry that Trump and his small group of hawkish advisers may miscalculate and blunder into another war — despite the president’s eagerness to disengage from the Middle East.
“The process so far has seemed pretty ragged,” said Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, and the author of “Revolution and Aftermath: A New Strategy Toward Iran.”
The Iraqi parliament voted Monday to expel U.S. forces in a mostly symbolic decision, leading to the Marine general’s letter saying that U.S. forces would be relocated “to prepare for onward movement” and that “we respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper later told reporters that the U.S. is not pulling troops out of Iraq, although he said some have been repositioned.
“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” he said, adding, “there’s no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave.” He said the U.S. remains committed to the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and the region.
After the parliament’s vote, Trump threatened to impose stiff sanctions on Iraq if it actually expelled U.S. troops, even though he’s often talked about pulling out of the country that was invaded by a U.S.-led force in 2003.
“He’s just reacting; he’s not thinking deeply about any of this,” Edelman said. “And this is where the hollow structure of the Trump administration is coming back to haunt them, and it makes you a little nervous about whether they’ve prepared for the consequences.”
Vast throngs of Iranians have poured into the streets to mourn the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force and was the architect of Tehran’s support for Shiite Muslim militias across Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Soleimani, who was arguably the second most powerful figure in Iran, was killed in a U.S. drone strike early Friday in Iraq as he was departing Baghdad’s airport with the leader of a local Iranian-backed militia.
Senior administration officials — including Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel — will brief Congress on Wednesday about the intelligence and policy considerations that convinced Trump to authorize the drone strike.
“He should have been taken out a long time ago,” Trump told Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, on Monday. “And we had a shot at it, and we took him out. We’re a lot safer now because of it.”
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a resolution that would limit what military action Trump could take against Iran. If it passes, it would force the administration to cease hostilities within 30 days unless Congress authorized more action.
The resolution is certain to pass the Democratic-controlled House, but it’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate would agree to limit the president’s options in a foreign policy crisis.
“Last week, the Trump administration conducted a provocative and disproportionate military airstrike targeting high-level Iranian military officials,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to House colleagues Sunday. “This action endangered our service members, diplomats and others by risking a serious escalation of tensions with Iran.”
Iran is vowing to strike back at the United States, although it’s unclear when or how.
“God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani’s revenge. Certainly actions will be taken,” said Gen. Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, according to Reuters.
Although Trump initially said he had targeted Soleimani to prevent a war, Trump vowed in a tweet Sunday to “quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner” if Iran attacks U.S. personnel.
“Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
Analysts said attacks on cultural sites could be considered war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, and questioned his strategy of ratcheting up his rhetoric if the goal is to lower the risk of war.
“It’s a delicate thing when you’re trying to deter an adversary,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “You want to leave them a pathway to do what you want them to do.”
Whether Trump has a target list, or if he would carry out his threat, is unclear. Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said he does not expect the increase in tensions to lead to war.
“Americans don’t want it. Trump doesn’t want it. The Iranians definitely don’t want it,” he said.
Recent history has shown that Tehran has tended to respond to U.S. military attacks in a calibrated, measured way, given the obvious power imbalance between the two countries.
“If you are the world’s most powerful country, your leader has more room to make mistakes,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm. “Trump makes plenty of mistakes, but people are going to give him a wider berth because if the U.S. gets it wrong, it doesn’t affect us all that much. If Iran gets it wrong, it could be the end of their country.”
While his unpredictability could be a strategic advantage in the short term, Trump’s disregard for process and his determination to go it mostly alone may have a more adverse impact over time, Bremmer added.
“Countries around the world are already saying they can’t trust us and now that’s deteriorating further, which plays to the advantage of China, Russia and other rogue actors,” Bremmer said. “That’s not good for the U.S. long term, although Trump doesn’t really consider the long term.”
(Los Angeles Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed from Washington, and Times staff writer Nabih Bulos contributed from Baghdad.)