Security Brief

An Iranian Proxy Group Is Likely Behind Attack That Killed U.S. Soldiers in Iraq

The U.S. Centcom chief warns of an ‘illusion of return to normalcy’ in U.S.-Iran tensions.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, participates in a press briefing on Oct. 30, 2019, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, participates in a press briefing on Oct. 30, 2019, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: New information emerges on the rocket attack on a military base in Iraq that killed two U.S. personnel and one British soldier, coronavirus fears spread to military exercises, and the FBI dispatches a team to Sudan to probe an assassination attempt against the prime minister.

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Attack on Base Could Stoke Iran Tensions 

Shiite militia groups are likely behind an attack that killed two U.S. personnel and a British soldier on a military base north of Baghdad, according to the head of U.S. Central Command, though he stressed that the investigation into the attack is still ongoing. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Centcom chief, told a congressional panel on Thursday that an Iranian proxy group could be behind the attack, indicating there’s no end in sight to tensions with Iran in the region.

“While periods of decreased tension may provide the illusion of a return to normalcy, ample intelligence and indeed yesterday’s actions indicate the Iranian regime’s desire to continue malign activities,” McKenzie said, during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The attack comes as the United States began a partial drawdown of military forces from the Middle East amid months of heightened tensions after the U.S. military strike killed Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in January.

Suleimani fallout continues. It’s still unclear exactly who is behind the attack, but the date is significant: March 11 would have been Suleimani’s 63rd birthday. In a separate hearing before the House on Wednesday, McKenzie said Suleimani’s killing had made it harder for Iran to control its proxy groups in Iraq. “I have always said that Iran can certainly direct attacks in Iraq,” he said. “Iran may not be able to prevent attacks from occurring in Iraq. And frankly, the fact that Qassem Suleimani is no longer there to tie it all together makes it a little bit more difficult for them to effect command and control.”

What We’re Watching

Coronavirus fears upend military exercises. U.S. and allied militaries aren’t taking any chances amid the coronavirus pandemic. Norway cancelled the last leg of a major military exercise in the Arctic due to concerns about the virus. The exercise involved around 15,000 troops from Norway, the United States, and other allies. Nearly two dozen troops involved in the exercise have been placed under quarantine. The decision is the latest in a string of cancellations involving U.S. troops. Last week, U.S. European Command announced that it would cancel a joint missile defense exercise with Israel, and military officials also scaled back exercises in Africa later this month.

Afghan peace deal progress. The Afghan peace deal is beginning to take shape. After initially dragging his feet, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has agreed to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners before intra-Afghan negotiations begin. (The peace deal signed between the United States and the Taliban called for the release of 5,000 prisoners.) Ghani said the remaining 3,500 prisoners would be released on a progressive basis after the formal talks begin. Ghani’s announcement comes as the United States officially begins withdrawing troops from the country. Hundreds of U.S. troops have already pulled out of Afghanistan, part of the first phase of Washington’s commitment to reduce its troop presence from about 13,000 to to 8,600.

Sudan assassination attempt. The FBI has dispatched a team of investigators to Sudan to help the Sudanese government investigate a failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the matter. On Monday, unknown attackers targeted the leader’s motorcade with a bomb and guns but he escaped unharmed. The attack highlights the fragility of Sudan’s democratic transition. The FBI did not respond to request for comment.

Zimbabwe sanctions update. The U.S. Treasury and State Departments announced updated sanctions on senior Zimbabwean officials this week over human rights violations, including on state security minister Owen Ncube and former military commander Anselem Sanyatwe. Several Senate aides who spoke to Foreign Policy said the updated list is long overdue, and it came in large part at the insistence of lawmakers. The timing of the announcement reflects how overburdened the Treasury Department has become with issuing and updating sanctions, one of the Trump administration’s most frequently used foreign-policy tools.

Movers and Shakers

 New Sahel envoy. The State Department announced this week it has tapped J. Peter Pham to be its new special envoy for Africa’s Sahel region, confirming Foreign Policy reporting in December that the department was creating the post. He will have his hands fullt: Terrorist groups, including offshoots of ISIS and al Qaeda, are gaining ground in West Africa despite yearslong counterterrorism campaigns by France and regional governments with U.S. support.

Mulvaney to Northern Ireland. U.S. President Donald Trump has nominated former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to serve as special envoy to Northern Ireland, a post left vacant when Trump assumed the presidency in 2017. Concerns over Brexit and its impact on tensions in Northern Ireland had led to calls for an appointment.

USAID move. Bethany Kozma, a Trump appointee and advisor on women and gender issues, has been tapped as the new deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Kozma is influential in the Trump administration’s efforts to promote anti-abortion platforms in international institutions.

Foreign Policy Recommends

The case for a Pacific deterrence initiative. Randall Schriver,a former senior Pentagon official under Trump, and Eric Sayers of the Center for a New American Security, call for a new fund to invest deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, like what the Pentagon established in Europe after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, in this piece for War on the Rocks

The Week Ahead 

The intra-Afghan negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10, but disagreements over prisoner swaps prevented that from happening. The Afghan government will releasing Taliban prisoners on Saturday as the first step toward opening intra-Afghan negotiations.

That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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