BAGHDAD—U.S. and Iraqi authorities warned Iran and Iranian-backed militias that any attacks on American diplomats or military forces here would be met with swift retaliation as the anniversary of a U.S. drone strike that killed one of Tehran’s top military leaders approached.
“No one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack,” the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said Wednesday.
Calls from Iranian-backed militia groups for violence against Americans have increased in the run-up to Jan. 3, the day last year that Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi paramilitary commander with him were killed as they left Baghdad airport.
On Thursday, a pro-Iranian Iraqi news group on the messaging service Telegram published a picture of the U.S. Embassy captioned: “Remember always I can see what you are doing.”
The U.S. strike that killed Gen. Soleimani, and an Iranian counterstrike against U.S. forces with ballistic missiles, raised fears of open warfare in the Middle East. Tensions gradually eased, but Washington and Tehran remain at odds over Iran’s nuclear program and its support for foreign militias.
Last month—days after a barrage of rockets slammed into Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to foreign diplomatic missions—Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi dispatched a delegation to Tehran asking the government there to help curb attacks, according to Iraqi lawmaker Amer al-Fayez.
The delegation also delivered the message that Washington would hold Iran responsible for any attack, according to an Iraqi government official.
On Wednesday, the U.S. dispatched two B-52 bombers on a flight over the Middle East in a show of force directed at “anyone who intends to do harm to Americans or American interests,” according to the U.S. Central Command.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded on Twitter, saying, “Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”
Iranian-backed militias have organized a series of events to mark last year’s drone strike. In recent days, new billboards have gone up along the airport road, rebranding it “The Martyr Al Mohandes street,” after the militia commander who was killed alongside Gen. Soleimani.
On Sunday, a demonstration is planned in central Baghdad to demand that U.S. troops leave the country.
A year ago, militia members and supporters breached the outer perimeter of the U.S. Embassy after a vigil to protest the killing of more than two dozen fighters in a U.S. airstrike. That strike followed the killing of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack on a base hosting coalition troops in northern Iraq.
Security forces have beefed up their presence on the streets of Baghdad in recent days, particularly in and around the Green Zone, according to Iraqi security officials.
The U.S. has reduced its footprint in Iraq over the past year, abandoning smaller isolated outposts and cutting troop numbers to about 3,000. It has also made preparations to close the embassy in Baghdad unless the Iraqi government takes action to prevent militia attacks.
Rocket attacks targeting the embassy and bases housing U.S. troops increased as the war against Islamic State wound down and the Trump administration intensified pressure on Iran. Militias have also claimed responsibility for attacks in recent months against Iraqi convoys transporting supplies for U.S.-led coalition forces.
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