WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iranian-backed militia pose a continuing and “significant” threat to U.S. forces in Iraq, the State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East said on Thursday, about a week after U.S. President Donald Trump warned of an attack by Iran or its proxies.
Speaking to reporters in a teleconference, David Schenker, assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department, did not give details about the threat, but said: “It continues to be significant.”
Iran-backed paramilitary groups have regularly been shelling bases in Iraq that host U.S. forces, as well as the area around the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
On Monday, three Katyushka rockets landed near a district in southern Iraq that houses workers for foreign oil companies, including U.S. oil service company Halliburton. No casualties or damage were reported.
Last week, Trump said Iran or its proxies planned a sneak attack on U.S. targets in Iraq, and warned they would pay a “very heavy price” but gave no details.
U.S.-Iranian relations have been bitter since the Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah of Iran in 1979 and ushered in an era of theocratic rule.
While there was a detente with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, relations have deteriorated with Trump’s decision nearly two years ago to abandon that multilateral agreement and reimpose U.S. sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
Worsening tensions, a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who founded Iraq’s Shi’ite Kataib Hezbollah militia after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States proposed a ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with Iraq to be held in June, a bid to restore strained bilateral ties.
Schenker, who in March said Washington was “enormously disappointed” by Iraq’s performance in protecting U.S.-led coalition forces in the country, reiterated that Baghdad needed to take steps if it valued Washington’s partnership.
“It is on the Iraqis – if they value that relationship – to take certain steps and that includes providing protection to the coalition forces who are in Iraq, if they want those forces to remain,” he said.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Rosalba O’Brien
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