‘This is why we exist’: Army paratroopers speed to Middle East in rapid response to increased Iran threat
Hundreds of U.S. paratroopers began a deployment to the Middle East early Wednesday, the Army said, the morning after Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered some 750 82nd Airborne Division troops be sent immediately in response to unrest in Iraq.
“At the direction of the Commander in Chief, I have authorized the deployment of an infantry battalion from the Immediate Response Force (IRF) of the 82nd Airborne Division to the U.S. Central Command area of operations,” Esper said in a statement.
The rare rapid deployment, which adds to the nearly 14,000 troops that have deployed to the region to deter Iranian threats since this summer, comes after mobs waving militia flags stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday.
“What you saw was Iranian-backed terrorists … come into the American embassy and posing a risk to American diplomats and personnel inside the embassy,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an appearance on Fox News.
CENTCOM had sent some 100 Marines from the theater’s crisis response Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force to bolster the diplomatic compound’s security in the wake of the assault.
The first troops and equipment are from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, the 82nd Airborne said in a statement posted to Facebook.
“The remainder of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, the BCT currently assigned the IRF mission, and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division remain postured and ready to deploy,” the division’s statement said.
Dubbed the All American Division, the unit is a rapid-deployment force that’s expected to be capable of planning, deploying and securing objectives within 18-hours notice.
“This is why we exist,” the division said. “Paratroopers have trained and prepared for events like these since their arrival to the All American Division, and they are trained and ready to answer the nation's call.”
The siege of the embassy came days after U.S. warplanes struck five sites in Iraq and Syria used by Kataeb Hezbollah, a Shiite militia in Iraq with close ties to Iran, which the Pentagon has blamed for a series of rocket attacks on Iraqi bases hosting American forces.
The latest of 11 such attacks in the past two months shed American blood for the first time on Friday, when a barrage of some 30 rockets hit a base in Kirkuk, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding four American troops. Two Iraqis were also wounded.
U.S. officials had repeatedly warned of a decisive response if Iraq could not prevent further rocketing, and the Pentagon has said the strikes — which killed 25 and wounded more than 50 — were defensive in nature.
But they’ve been denounced by Iraq’s government, powerful Shiite clerics in the country and others. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi called for a review of the country’s relationship with the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State in the wake of the strikes on Monday.
Abdul-Mahdi and others have decried the strikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, contrary to rules governing the coalition’s actions, and an attack on Iraqi security forces holding a front in the ISIS fight.
Despite being a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization for its attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces following the 2003 invasion, Kataeb Hezbollah has helped fight ISIS since 2014 and is considered officially a part of Iraq’s military.
Its leadership, close allies of Iran who have long been hostile to U.S. forces, promised retaliation and an ouster of Pentagon troops from the country, which some observers fear could jeopardize anti-ISIS operations and allow the terrorist group to resurge amid ongoing chaos.
Iraq has been gripped since early October by protests seeking government reforms and demanding an end to foreign interference in the country’s sovereign affairs. The ire’s mostly focused Iran’s influence, but some fear that the U.S. strikes could make it a bigger target of the protest movement.
Many Iraqis oppose their country becoming a battleground for a fight between Washington and Tehran. Tension between the two has mounting for months, since the Trump administration backed out of an Obama-era nuclear deal and began imposing punishing sanctions.
Iran and its proxies have since been blamed for a series of attacks in the Persian Gulf and surrounding countries, among other malign behavior.
Despite the upheaval this week in Baghdad’s Green Zone, there were never plans to evacuate the embassy compound, Pompeo said on Fox News, nor has the U.S. contemplated pulling its roughly 5,000 U.S. troops out of the country. Up to 4,000 more troops could deploy to the region in the coming days, Fox reported.
The deployment of the immediate response force is an “appropriate and precautionary action” in response to increased threat levels, Esper’s statement said.
“The United States will protect our people and interests anywhere they are found around the world,” he said.
Following the embassy attack, President Donald Trump promised on Twitter that Iran would be “held fully responsible” for loss of lives or damage to U.S. facilities.
“They will pay a very BIG PRICE!” he wrote. “This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”