U.S. must settle on a Middle East strategy, experts say

Middle East

The United States’ main priority in the wake of the attack by Iranian-based militias on its Baghdad embassy should be settling on a strategy for the region and sticking to it, experts say.

The attack of the Baghdad embassy compound prompted the U.S. to send military reinforcements but caused no known U.S. casualties.

President Trump said Iran would be held “fully responsible” for the attack on the embassy on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether that meant military retaliation.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” Trump tweeted later in the afternoon. He also thanked top Iraqi government leaders for their “rapid response upon request.”

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said this type of attack has been brewing — and puts the U.S. in a tough position.

“Regardless of what you think of the administration, it doesn’t have any good options,” Cordesman said. “You have to decide for once and for all if you really want to stay in the Gulf, and if you are, you have to stop talking about withdrawing.”

The embassy attack followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. said those strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor and the wounding of American and Iraqi troops in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission.

Trump has been measured in his response to Iranian provocations up to this point. In June, he abruptly called off U.S. military strikes on Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of an American drone. Sunday’s airstrikes were the first major strike back against Iranian-backed aggression.

“If you don’t at one point or another retaliate and show there’s a price to be paid, you invite further attacks,” Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute told the Herald.

Vatanka said Iran is looking for leverage to try to pry the U.S. out of the area — but not to provoke a major conflict, which Iran would lose. So the U.S. has to be clear, he said: “What is the endgame vis a vis Iran?”

“Is it regime change, is it dialogue — or what?” Vatanka said.

Robert Ford, a retired U.S. diplomat who served five years in Baghdad, said Iran’s allies in the Iraqi parliament may be able to harness any surge in anger among Iraqis over the American strikes on their turf to force U.S. troops to leave the country — even though the Iranian militias aren’t too welcome, either.

“The Americans fell into the Iranian trap,” Ford said.

 Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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