US asks Iraq to help prevent Iranian-linked attacks on US troops

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has asked Iraq to help prevent attacks on US personnel that both countries have attributed to groups backed by Iran.

Esper spoke with Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, asking for the Iraqi leader’s assistance in preventing the attacks.

“On the call, Secretary Esper reiterated United States support for a secure and sovereign Iraq and the people of Iraq. He also called on our Iraqi partners to continue to assist in preventing attacks on US and coalition personnel and facilities in the country,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson told CNN in a statement.

The call comes as US officials have grown increasingly concerned about a series of rocket attacks on military installations in Iraq where US and coalition personnel are stationed.

There are some 5,000 US troops in Iraq, in addition to personnel from several other members of the anti-ISIS military coalition, part of a mission aimed at bolstering Iraq’s security forces as they battle the remnants of the terrorist group.

Several US officials have told CNN that they believe that Iran is likely behind some of those attacks, which have grown more frequent and increasingly sophisticated in recent weeks.

“My suspicion would be Iran is behind these attacks much like they’re behind a lot of (malign) behavior throughout the region,” Esper said on Monday as he traveled back to Washington from a ceremony commemorating the Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg. “But it’s hard to pin down. So again, we need [Iraq’s] help in terms of getting the security situation under control and stabilized. But we also still retain our right of self-defense. And we’ll exercise it.”

A senior Iraqi security official told CNN on Monday that all indications are that the powerful Iran-backed paramilitary force Hashad al-Shabbi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units, is behind the recent attacks targeting US military bases in Iraq.

The Popular Mobilization Units were formed in 2014, after Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric called on people to join the fight to repel ISIS as the terror group captured swaths of Iraqi territory. Many responded by joining new and long-standing paramilitary organizations that came under the Popular Mobilization Units banner.

Strong ties to Iran

US officials have long said that many of those groups have strong ties to Iran’s security forces, from which they receive funding and other support, as well as some direction.

In 2016, the Iraqi Parliament passed a law recognizing the Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Units as an independent military force that answers directly to the Prime Minister. Despite this legislative action, most observers see many of those groups as maintaining their strong links to Tehran.

The senior security official, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said there’s an ongoing investigation by a security committee into the recent rocket attacks near US military bases in Baghdad and elsewhere. The final report will be submitted to the central government in Baghdad, the official added.

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran against harming interests in Iraq, accusing Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary groups of conducting a flurry of attacks on US bases in Iraq.

“Iran’s proxies have recently conducted several attacks against bases where Iraqi Security Forces are co-located with US and international coalition personnel,” Pompeo said in a statement released by his office Friday.