The U.S. military gave a top British general a public tongue-lashing Tuesday after he told reporters at the Pentagon that Iran does not pose a threat to coalition troops in the Middle East.
“There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” British Army Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, deputy commander of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, said Tuesday in a video press briefing from Baghdad. “We’re aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in.” The Pentagon has increased U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf over the last week, citing “troubling and escalatory” threats from Tehran.
Hours later, the top spokesman for the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East issued a stark statement contradicting Ghika, saying the Pentagon has put U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq on heightened alert.
Ghika’s comments “run counter to identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region,” Capt. Bill Urban said.
U.S. Central Command, working with the anti-ISIS coalition, “has increased the force posture level for all service members” in Iraq and Syria, Urban added. The coalition “is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq.”
Ghika emphasized throughout his briefing that Iran was not in his wheelhouse. “I have no part of Iran in any of my orders, in any of my directives, or in any of my planning documents. Iran is no part of our mission,” he told reporters who repeatedly asked about possible Iranian threats.
The Pentagon deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a task force of B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf last week, followed by an additional ship and a Patriot missile defense battery. The New York Times reported Monday that U.S. officials reviewed a plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Gulf if Iran attacked U.S. forces, but President Trump denied the report Tuesday.
“I think it’s fake news,” Trump said. “Hopefully, we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
The State Department issued an order Wednesday requiring all nonemergency staff to leave Iraq, though specific details regarding the threat posed by Iran remain unclear. U.S. allies are skeptical of a potential threat, with U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warning that Europe is “very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended, really, on either side, but ends with some kind of conflict.”
The Trump administration and European allies have been split on Iran since the president withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear agreement a year ago. Iran has threatened to increase its nuclear activities in breach of the deal unless the European signatories agree to new terms within the next two months.