Trump Threatens Iran on Iraq

On April 1, President Donald Trump warned that Iran would pay a “very heavy price” if it or one of its proxies attacked U.S. troops or assets in Iraq. In a tweet, he cited a possible “sneak attack” but did not provide further details. The message came after Trump reportedly received a foreign intelligence briefing. Trump repeated his warning. “Don’t do it. This would be a very bad thing for them if they do it.” He said the next response “will be bigger” than the U.S. retaliation against Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack on Camp Taji in March. Iraqi militias backed by Iran, including Kataib Hezbollah, have grown increasingly bold in their attacks on U.S. forces since December 2019. 

The threat came three weeks after a rocket attack in Iraq that killed two American troops and one British soldier on March 11. The United States blamed Kataib Hezbollah, one of several Iraqi militias backed by Iran. Two days later, U.S. forces mounted retaliatory strikes. But General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), warned that Iran and its proxies still posed a threat to U.S. forces. “I think the threat remains very high. I think the tensions have actually not gone down,” he said at a news briefing on March 13. “I would caution I would caution Iran and its proxies from attempting a response that would endanger U.S. and coalition forces or our partners.”


Trump’s tweet coincided with the visit of a top Iranian general, Esmail Ghaani, to Baghdad. The new commander of the Qods Force branch of the Revolutionary Guards is a key interlocutor with Iran-backed militias across the region (Ghaani replaced Qassem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad on January 3). Ghaani arrived on March 30 to try to forge unity among Iraqi political leaders amid the latest candidate to be prime minister. 

On April 2, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned against being misled by “warmongers.” In response to Trump, Zarif said Iran only acts in self-defense while the United States “surreptitiously lies, cheats and assassinates.” 


For more information on Iran-backed militias in Iraq, see here.

Iran and the United States have competed for influence in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but U.S.-Iran tensions on Iraq increased dramatically in late 2019 and early 2020. Iran-backed militias attacked U.S. forces several times. A U.S. contractor was killed in late December and Iran’s allies stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The United States and Iran edged close to war after the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, then head of the Qods Force, on January 3. The following is a timeline of U.S.-Iran tensions on Iraq since late 2019. 



Dec. 27: Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, launched rockets at the K1 military base near Kirkuk, which housed U.S. military service members and Iraqi personnel. The attack killed a U.S. civilian contractor and wounded four U.S. service members and two Iraqis.  

Dec. 29: The United States responded with airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah positions in western Iraq and eastern Syria. The strikes, which reportedly killed at least 25 militants, targeted weapons depots and command centers that the group had used to attack U.S. forces and allies.  

Dec. 31: Supporters of Kataib Hezbollah stormed the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad to protest the U.S. airstrikes. The gunmen and demonstrators broke into a reception area inside the front gate but did not reach the main embassy buildings. They chanted “Death to America” and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the compound. In a series of tweets, Trump accused Tehran of orchestrating the attack:

Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!

The U.S. Embassy in Iraq is, & has been for hours, SAFE! Many of our great Warfighters, together with the most lethal military equipment in the world, was immediately rushed to the site. Thank you to the President & Prime Minister of Iraq for their rapid response upon request.. Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the United States would deploy an infantry battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division in response to the attacks.  



Jan. 2: Secretary Esper warned that the United States “will not accept continued attacks against our personnel & forces in the region.” He said that the United States would take “preemptive action” to defend U.S. interests against Iranian plots. “The game has changed,” Esper told reporters during a briefing.  

Jan. 3: President Trump ordered an airstrike on a convey of Iranian and Iraqi military leaders leaving Baghdad airport. The drone attack, launched on January 3 (January 2 US. time), killed seven people including General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC's elite Qods Force, and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a Kataib Hezbollah leader. Muhandis was also the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of militias formed to fight ISIS. Many PMF militias have received arms, training and funding from Iran.  

Trump defended his decision to conduct the airstrike as a “defensive action” meant to “stop a war.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Soleimani was plotting “imminent attacks” on U.S. personnel and interests in the region. “It was time to take this action so that we could disrupt this plot, deter further aggression from Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian regime, as well as to attempt to de-escalate the situation,” he said

Esper announced that the United States would deploy 3,500 additional troops to the region after Iran’s supreme leader vowed “severe revenge” for the death of Soleimani. The United States urged all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.  

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the new commander of the Qods Force and that its mission would not change. Ghaani had worked closely with Soleimani and had been deputy commander of the Qods Force since 1997.  


Jan. 4: Iranian General Gholamali Abuhamzeh said that the IRGC had identified at least 35 U.S. targets that could be hit in retaliatory strikes. He specifically named U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and the city of Tel Aviv.

Trump warned that the United States had identified 52 targets, including cultural sites, and that Washington would strike if Iran attempted retaliatory attacks on U.S. interests. Trump said that the 52 sites represented the 52 American hostages held by Iranian protestors in the 1979 attack of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.  


The Pentagon reported that two rocket attacks had occurred near bases that hosted coalition troops in Baghdad and Balad. No casualties were reported, and no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. 

NATO announced that it would suspend a mission to train Iraqi security forces due to the threat of an attack by Iran. “The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said. “We continue to take all precautions necessary. NATO’s mission is continuing, but training activities are temporarily suspended.”

Jan. 5: Thousands of Iranians gathered in the streets of Ahvaz and Mashhad to mourn the death of Soleimani as his body arrived in Iran for a funeral procession. Mourners shouted, “Death to America” and burned U.S. and Israeli flags.


Iraqi lawmakers voted on a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of U.S. and all foreign forces. The resolution would also require the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to file a complaint at the United Nations against the United States for breaching Iraqi sovereignty. It also called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the airstrike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. The resolution was primarily backed by Shiite lawmakers. Some 150 representatives, including all 58 Kurds and most of the legislature’s Sunnis, boycotted the session. The draft bill would not go into law until signed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The United States said that it was “disappointed” in the Iraqi parliament’s vote. “We strongly urge Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the ongoing economic and security relationship between the two countries and the continued presence of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. “We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together.”

Jan 6: Hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out for Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran. Many shouted “Death to America.” Supreme Leader Khamenei wept over the coffin. Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Gha’ani, warned that Iran would take revenge. The late general’s daughter, Zeinab, lashed out against President Trump. “You crazy Trump, the symbol of ignorance, the slave of Zionists, don’t think that the killing of my father will finish everything,” she told mourners. “The families of the American soldiers in western Asia will spend their days waiting for the death of their children.”

Jan. 8: Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Soleimani. No U.S. or Iraqi personnel were harmed. Iran was quick to claim responsibility for the attack on U.S. forces. But its foreign minister also emphasized that Tehran did not seek war. 


Minutes later, President Trump took to Twitter and implied that the damage to the al Assad and Irbil facilities was not serious. “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning,” he tweeted. 

Later in the day, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran’s ultimate goal was to expel U.S. forces from the wider Middle East. “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region,” he said in a televised speech. As of January 2020, the United States had more than 60,000 troops deployed throughout the wider region, including Afghanistan, which borders Iran. 

President Trump, in a televised address, said the United States would impose additional economic sanctions on Iran and continue to evaluate other ways to respond to the attack. He also called on the remaining parties to the 2015 nuclear deal – Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia – to withdraw from the agreement and work toward a new, more comprehensive one. “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” he added. “The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer.”

But he also made an overture to negotiate with the Islamic Republic and suggested the two countries could work together on issues of common concern, such as ISIS. “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” he said.

Jan. 30: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. had asked the Iraqi government for permission to deploy Patriot missile defense systems in Iraq. The request was in response to Iran’s missile attack against al Assad airbase on January 8. 

March 10: General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, told members of the House Armed Service Committee that the Pentagon was “in the process of bringing air defense systems, ballistic missile defense systems into Iraq.”

March 11: Some 30 Katyusha rockets were launched at Camp Taji base near Baghdad. More than a dozen landed on the base, wounding 14 and killing two U.S. and one British service members. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iran-backed militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyed al Shuhada and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba lauded the operation.

March 13: At approximately 1:30 a.m., U.S. forces struck Kataib Hezbollah sites in retaliation for the attack on Camp Taji. “These strikes targeted five weapon storage facilities to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks against Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces,” the Pentagon said. The targets were concentrated in central Iraq, according to local sources.


March 17: U.S.-led coalition forces departed al Qaim base near the Iraqi-Syrian border and transferred control to Iraqi Security Forces. The base was an important hub for coalition operations against ISIS during the battle for Baghouz. The move was part of a plan to consolidate U.S. forces in Baghdad and Ain al-Assad in the country’s western desert.

March 26: U.S.-led coalition forces departed al Qayyarah base in Nineveh Province and fully transferred control to Iraqi Security Forces. The base, retaken from ISIS in 2016, was a launching point for coalition air forces during the battle for Mosul. 

March 29: U.S.-led coalition forces departed the K1 Air Base and transferred the part of the facility they had been using to Iraqi Security Forces. CENTCOM said the handover was one of several that were pre-planned and not related to recent attacks on coalition troops.

March 30: U.S. and Iraqi military officials confirmed that two Patriot missile batteries had been deployed in Iraq: one at al Assad airbase and one in Erbil. Two additional batteries in Kuwait were slated for later deployment to Iraq. 

April 1: In a tweet, President Donald Trump warned that Iran would pay a “very heavy price” if it or one of its proxies attacked U.S. troops or assets in Iraq. He cited a possible “sneak attack” but did not provide further details. 

April 1: Iran’s foreign ministry warned that U.S. Patriot battery deployments to Iraq constituted “warmongering” that could lead to “instability and disaster.”

April 2: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned against being misled by “warmongers.” In response to Trump, Zarif said Iran only acts in self-defense while the United States “surreptitiously lies, cheats and assassinates.” 


April 4: U.S.-led coalition forces departed the area of the al Taqaddum air base in central Iraq. “Over the last month we have transferred four bases to full ISF control. This wouldn’t be possible without the ISF’s proven capability to bring the fight to ISIS. The Coalition will continue to support our partners against the evils of Daesh,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker, director of sustainment for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. 

Photo Credit: Ali Najafifar for Fars News Agency (CC BY 4.0)