Iran-backed militias in Iraq have adopted a “heightened level of preparation,” raising fears among US officials that Tehran could be preparing an attack to avenge the deaths of its nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month and of its top general Qassem Soleimani ahead of the first anniversary of his killing, CNN reported Thursday night.
The report cited Pentagon officials familiar with the latest intelligence, one of whom said the preparations taken in recent days were “worrisome,” but that there were no specific indications that a decision has been made to attack US troops or US diplomatic sites in Iraq.
The officials didn’t discuss the specifics of the militias’ maneuvers due to the sensitive nature of intelligence.
Iranian-backed militias routinely launch rockets near installations in Iraq where US and Iraqi troops are based, and officials worry about a larger, more deadly assault.
The report also said that Iran has been moving defensive systems to its coastal areas, with US officials assessing that the regime is “rattled” and fears an attack by Israel or the US.
It said Washington fears the situation could spiral out of control as US President Donald Trump’s term draws to a close and the January 3 anniversary of Soleimani’s killing drawing near, with a mistake or miscalculation by either Iran, the US or Israel possibly risking an armed conflict.
It also noted that the Islamic Republic could prefer to wait until after Joe Biden’s January 20 inauguration to negotiate with his administration instead.
The US airstrike that killed Soleimani near Baghdad’s airport also killed senior Iraqi militia leaders.
Iran has blamed Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination outside Tehran, though the Jewish state has remained mum on the subject. Israel has been suspected in previous killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.
The report came after two American bomber aircraft took off from the United States and flew over a swath of the Middle East on Thursday, sending what US officials said was a direct message of deterrence to Iran.
The flight of the two massive B-52H Stratofortress bombers over the region, the second such mission in less than a month, was designed to underscore America’s continuing commitment to the Middle East even as Trump’s administration withdraws thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The long-range heavy bombers, which are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons, are a formidable sight and are flown less frequently in the Middle East than smaller combat aircraft, such as American fighter jets. Adversaries often complain about bomber flights in their region, deeming them a provocative show of force.
The troop cuts coupled with the impending departure of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group in the Gulf have fueled allies’ concerns that the US is abandoning the region. Those worries are compounded by fears that Iran may strike out at the US or allies in retaliation for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.
The USS Nimitz, and as many as three other warships in its strike group, had been scheduled to head home by the end of the year, but they have been held in the region and no new timeline on the departure has been given. Officials, however, have made it clear that the ships’ return hasn’t been decided and the additional time in the Gulf area is open-ended.
The Pentagon announced last month that the US will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, asserting that the decision fulfills Trump’s pledge to bring forces home from America’s long wars. Under the accelerated pullout, the US will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500 and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500.