Trump Deploys More Troops to Mideast after US Embassy Attack

Washington -
The first contingent of a paratroop infantry battalion from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division bound for Kuwait prepare to leave Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S. January 1, 2020. U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. (Handout via REUTERS.)

Charging that Iran was “fully responsible” for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, President Donald Trump ordered about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East as about 3,000 more prepared for possible deployment in the next several days.

No U.S. casualties or evacuations were reported after the attack Tuesday by dozens of Iran-supported militiamen. U.S. Marines were sent from Kuwait to reinforce the compound.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last night that “in response to recent events” in Iraq, and at Trump’s direction, he authorized the immediate deployment of the infantry battalion from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He did not specify the soldiers’ destination, but a U.S. official familiar with the decision said they will go to Kuwait.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” Esper said in a written statement.

Additional soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s quick-deployment brigade, known officially as its Immediate Response Force, were prepared to deploy, Esper said. The U.S. official, who provided unreleased details on condition of anonymity, said the full brigade of about 4,000 soldiers may deploy.

The 750 soldiers deploying immediately were in addition to 14,000 U.S. troops who had deployed to the Gulf region since May in response to concerns about Iranian aggression, including its alleged sabotage of commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf. At the time of the attack, the U.S. had about 5,200 troops in Iraq, mainly to train Iraqi forces and help them combat Islamic State extremists.

The breach of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday was a stark demonstration that Iran can still strike at American interests despite Trump’s economic pressure campaign. It also revealed growing strains between Washington and Baghdad, raising questions about the future of the U.S. military mission there.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon, though it was unclear whether his “threat” meant military retaliation. He thanked top Iraqi government leaders for their “rapid response upon request.”

Even as Trump has argued for removing U.S. troops from Mideast conflicts, he also has singled out Iran as a malign influence in the region. After withdrawing the U.S. in 2018 from an international agreement that exchanged an easing of sanctions for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, Trump ratcheted up sanctions.

Those economic penalties, including a virtual shut-off of Iranian oil exports, are aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a broader nuclear deal. But critics say that pressure has pushed Iranian leaders into countering with a variety of military attacks in the Gulf.

Until Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes, Trump had been measured in his response to Iranian provocations. In June, he abruptly called off U.S. military strikes on Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of an American drone.

Robert Ford, a retired U.S. diplomat who served five years in Baghdad and then became ambassador in Syria, said Iran’s allies in the Iraqi parliament may be able to harness any surge in anger among Iraqis toward the United States to force U.S. troops to leave the country. Ford said Trump miscalculated by approving Sunday’s airstrikes on Kataeb Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria — strikes that drew a public rebuke from the Iraqi government and seem to have triggered Tuesday’s embassy attack.

“The Americans fell into the Iranian trap,” Ford said, with airstrikes that turned some Iraqi anger toward the U.S. and away from Iran and the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Trump is under pressure from some in Congress to take a hardline approach to Iranian aggression, which the United States says included an unprecedented drone and missile attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in September. More recently, Iran-backed militias in Iraq have conducted numerous rocket attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces.