BAGHDAD: The US has called on Baghdad to “take actions” to protect US interests in the country after a flurry of attacks that have been blamed on Iranian-backed groups.
Tehran wields growing influence in Iraq, particularly through armed factions.
Since Oct. 28, 10 rocket attacks have targeted areas where US soldiers and diplomats are stationed.
They have not been claimed, but the US has blamed Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary groups.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters he had expressed “concern about the optics in attacks on bases in Iraq where US troops and material might be,” in a call with outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The US has “a right of self defense, that we would ask our Iraqi partners to take proactive actions ... to get that under control, because it’s not good for anybody,” he told Abdul Mahdi.
Abdul Mahdi’s office released a statement earlier confirming the phone call and asking everyone “to spare no effort to prevent an escalation that will threaten all parties.”
He said: “Unilateral decisions will trigger negative reactions that will make it more difficult to control the situation and will threaten Iraq’s security, sovereignty and independence.”
Esper acknowledged Tehran’s involvement was difficult to prove.
“My suspicion would be that Iran is behind these attacks, much like they are behind a lot of malign behavior throughout the region,” he said. “But it’s hard to pin down.”
Abdul Mahdi is a close ally of Iran who also enjoyed cordial relations with the US. He resigned in early December after the two months of unprecedented demonstrations in the capital and Shiite-majority south that have left 460 people dead.
Negotiations are underway to name his successor.
“If the Iraqi government or state weakens, this will exacerbate escalation and chaos,” Abdul Mahdi told Esper, according to the statement.
Iran has gained overwhelming influence in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion brought down Saddam Huseein.
A US source said pro-Iran factions in Iraq were now considered a more significant threat to American soldiers than Daesh.
The attacks have killed one Iraqi soldier and left others wounded, as well as causing material damage in the vicinity of the US Embassy in Baghdad’s ultra-secure Green Zone.
The US has recently reinforced its security at the embassy, according to an Iraqi security source, who said “a convoy of 15 American vehicles each transporting armored trucks and weapons entered the Green Zone.”
Top US diplomat Mike Pompeo on Friday warned Iran’s leaders “that any attacks by them, or their proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies or our interests will be answered with a decisive US response.”
US officials say they are considering sending 5,000 to 7,000 troops to the region to counter Iran, although Esper on Friday again denied a report that a 14,000-strong deployment was under discussion.