The U.S. Is Sending Specialists to Iraq to Keep Tabs on Iran’s Agents
Counterintelligence troops help guard against spies
The Pentagon is sending another 1,300 ground troops to Iraq to help local forces fight Islamic State, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Dec. 19.
The reinforcements will include an unspecified number of counterintelligence specialists whose job it is to protect American forces from spies and saboteurs.
And for good reason. Iranian agents, proxies and supporters are all over Iraq, also helping fight the Sunni militants. With U.S. and Iranian troops in such close proximity, the risk is high for Washington that Tehran could scoop up some pretty useful intel.
We don’t know which U.S. units are providing the counter-spies. However, all of the American armed services have troops who specialize in this mission. The U.S. Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group at Fort Meade in Maryland is one example.
Whichever counterintel troops are heading to Iraq, their work in the embattled country will be “routine,” public affairs officials for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve—the American task force in Iraq—told War Is Boring.
The specialists are “needed to protect personnel and the mission,” the officials added.
Timing is a question. Why now? We weren’t able to find out what specific threats might have prompted the Pentagon to send the counterintel troops to the Middle East.
Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleymani, the head of Islamic Republic’s Qods Force, has been spotted in the country numerous times. Iran’s powerful and politically influential Revolutionary Guard Corps sends Soleymani and his personnel abroad to work with pro-Tehran militias.
The Qods Force is also Tehran’s “primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad,” according to the State Department’s most recent annual report on terrorist activities.
The Pentagon insists it’s not coordinating directly with these Iranian forces. But even if American troops aren’t teaming up with their counterparts from Terhan, both groups are working closely with Iraqi officials.
It’s “fiction” to pretend otherwise, says John Pike, director of the military information Website GlobalSecurity.org. “The new Shia government seems to be … as firmly under the control of Tehran as the Maliki government was,” Pike adds.
Washington would be keen to stop Soleymani’s men from grabbing any sensitive information.
Same goes for Iraq’s numerous Shi’a militias, some of which Iran is also actively supporting. These sectarian groups fly their own flags and appear to be more loyal to their own leaders rather than to the central government, according to The New York Times.
Leading up to the withdrawal from Iraq, these same organizations repeatedly attacked American troops. “U.S. officials accused these militias of causing an elevated level of … troop deaths in June 2011,” a recent Congressional Research Service report states.
The Pentagon’s complaints were hardly new. Early on in the American occupation of Iraq, the Badr Brigades basically captured the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad, Pike notes.
The Badr militias were the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shi’a insurgent group that had opposed dictator Saddam Hussein from bases inside Iran.
Now Washington believes that “unregulated militias in Iraq,” especially those Tehran backs, “have contributed significantly to the sectarian conflict,” a State Department spokesperson said during a press conference in November.
American commanders are surely wary of having their troops in close proximity to Iran’s agents and proxies. The fighters could also conceivably sneak into Iraqi units that Western nations are helping to train.
And then there’s this. “Insider attacks”—where ostensibly friendly local troops turn on their foreign allies—have killed scores of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Insurgents tend to “capitalize on insider attacks” regardless of the actual attacker’s particular motives, according to a recent Pentagon review of operations in Afghanistan.
If insider attacks were to hit U.S. troops currently in Iraq, Islamic State or other groups could score a major propaganda victory. Kurdish troops have already accused the Sunni extremists of sneaking into their territory by hiding among refugees.
“While we can’t speak to a specific threat,” the CJTF-OIR spokesman said, “there is always the potential of these types of incidents.”