US, coalition allies appear divided on Iran threat

Sylvie LANTEAUME
Members of the international force fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, some of whose soldiers are pictured with French Defence Minister Florence Parly in February 2019, sees no increased threat from Iran (AFP Photo/Daphné BENOIT)

Washington (AFP) - Coalition forces in Iraq and Syria sent conflicting signals Tuesday over Iran's alleged threat, with a British general appearing to take issue with Washington's alarms over an imminent danger posed by Tehran to the US and its allies.

Major General Chris Ghika, a British spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said that they did not sense any intensified threat from Iran in the region, even though the US military was boosting its forces in the Gulf.

"There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria," Ghika told reporters via teleconference at the Pentagon.

That brought a sharp retort from the US Central Command, which in the past nine days has accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier task force to the Gulf, adding to it B-52 bombers, a Patriot missile battery and an amphibious assault ship, in the face of the alleged Iranian threat.

Ghika's comments "run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region," Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban said.

The mixed signals underscored questions about the US ramping up its forces in the Gulf without having explained the intelligence behind the move.

On May 5, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the Pentagon was sending the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the region "in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings" related to Iran.

In the week since, the Pentagon said it would also position a Patriot missile battery and an amphibious assault ship in the region as a warning to Tehran.

Iran has denied planning anything and US allies have warned of the danger of escalation, saying it heightens the chance that an accident could set off a major conflict.

- US: 'High level of alert' -

Both Washington and Tehran said Tuesday that they were not seeking war -- but, in Sochi, Russia, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again issued a warning.

"We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion."

Ghika's comments, and the lack of any details on what Washington believes Tehran was planning, has fed suspicions among critics that President Donald Trump's administration was firing up tensions in the region without justification.

"We've seen no change in the posture or laydown" of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iraqi paramilitary group with close ties to Tehran, Ghika said.

"Of course PMF is a very broad range of groups. Many of them are compliant and we have seen no change in their posture since the recent exchange between the US and Iran."

Ghika denied he was contradicting his US partners, and said the Inherent Resolve forces were already postured against a range of threats.

"I don't think we're out of step with the White House at all," Ghika said.

But Central Command's Urban said that in fact alert levels had been stepped up due to the Iran threat.

"US Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve, has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria," he said in a statement.

"As a result, OIR is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq."