WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria halted its yearslong campaign against the Islamic State on Sunday as U.S. forces braced for retaliation from Iran over a strike that killed a powerful Iranian commander, military officials said.
In a statement, the U.S. command said that after repeated attacks on Iraqi and U.S. bases in recent weeks, one of which killed an American contractor Dec. 27, “we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review.”
“We remain resolute as partners of the government of Iraq and the Iraqi people that have welcomed us into their country to help defeat ISIS,” the statement said. Using the Arabic name for the Islamic State, it added, “We remain ready to return our full attention and efforts back to our shared goal of ensuring the lasting defeat of Daesh.”
The move comes after the deaths last week of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian security and intelligence commander responsible for the deaths of hundreds of troops over the years, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful Iraqi militia commander and government official, in a U.S. drone strike outside the Baghdad airport. About 5,200 troops in Iraq and several hundred in Syria are now focused on fortifying their outposts instead of pursuing remnants of the Islamic State and training local forces.
What remains to be seen is what, exactly, Iran will do in retribution for the strike. In recent days, tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters took to the streets in Baghdad, chanting that “revenge is coming” to the United States.
In both Syria and Iraq, the United States has maintained an archipelago of outposts, bases and airfields, all connected by ground and air transport routes, where small contingents of U.S. troops are either training local forces or working alongside them to carry out counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State.
The cessation of those missions to instead focus on security is likely to allow what remains of the terrorist group to reconstitute itself in the ungoverned spaces where it flourishes, much as it did when Turkey invaded northern Syria in October. Worsening the situation, Iran-backed militias that were also fighting the Islamic State have turned their attention toward the United States.
“The fight against ISIS has been significantly degraded by the tensions between the U.S. and Iran,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He cited the fact that U.S. forces have recently been excluded from ground operations and have had airspace closed to them in the battle against the terrorist group as a result of pressure on the Iraqi government from Iran-backed militias operating in the country.
One way that the U.S.-led effort stands to be further degraded is if Special Operations forces limit their missions, he said. U.S. troops are deployed in several joint U.S. and Iraqi bases spread across the country, where they have been keeping pressure on resurgent ISIS cells.
The administration’s decision to suspend counterterrorism operations after the strike on Soleimani drew sharp criticism from many former intelligence and counterterrorism specialists.
“The Trump administration that promised to ‘annihilate’ ISIS has now stopped operations against ISIS to protect US troops from Iranian retaliation,” Joshua Geltzer, who was the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said on Twitter on Sunday. “So Trump stops addressing an existing threat to deal with one of his making.”
Other security analysts said the administration now faces an escalating multifront fight against an array of Sunni and Shiite violent extremists.
“The entire U.S. mission in the Middle East is being repositioned from a specific and focused goal of defeating ISIS to an amorphous and open-ended campaign to counter Iran,” Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a research organization for global security issues, said in an email. “This will provide ISIS with the operational space needed to reconstitute its networks across Iraq and Syria. U.S. forces will be overstretched while also becoming more attractive targets for a broad array of adversaries.”
The U.S. military has long had plans to contend with an Iranian military incursion in the region, according to a former senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Those plans include moving important U.S. assets stationed in the Middle East, such as warships and aircraft, away from possible attack points and shutting down smaller, more exposed bases, or at least withdrawing U.S. troops from them, the official said.
At the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, roughly 100 Marines who have been deployed there in recent days, along with around 3,500 paratroopers and a Special Operations unit sent to the region, are preparing for a possible attack from Iranian-backed forces.
One military officer deployed to the region said an attack could include mortar and rocket fire, along with snipers.
For now, though, the atmosphere at the embassy remained relatively calm, and the Marines used only nonlethal weapons, such as tear gas, during demonstrations last week, the officer added.
Further complicating the situation, the Iraqi Parliament voted Sunday to expel U.S. and other foreign troops from the nation. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is expected to sign the bill, though it includes no timetable for a withdrawal.
Although the Iraqi government declared the Islamic State defeated in December 2017 and the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian fighters seized the group’s last swath of territory in Syria last March, ISIS fighters have continued attacks, albeit on a much smaller scale, in both countries.
In 2014, at the Islamic State’s height, it held territory roughly the size of Britain.
Brett McGurk, President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State until a year ago, warned that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq — on the heels of suspending counterterrorism missions — could leave the country vulnerable to a resurgent terrorist wave, as happened after U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
“If we leave Iraq, that will just increase further the running room for Iran and Shia militia groups and also the vacuum that we’ll see groups like ISIS fill, and we’ll be right back to where we were,” McGurk said on MSNBC. “That would be a disaster.”