The New York Times:
The Pentagon has ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops.
But the United States’ top commander in Iraq has warned that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran. In a blunt memo last week, the commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American troops be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the primary American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to combat the Islamic State.
The Pentagon directive and General White’s response — both classified internal military communications — were described by several American officials with direct knowledge of their contents. The exchange comes amid a simmering fight inside the Trump administration over policy toward Iran and the course of America’s war in Iraq, which began just over 17 years ago.
Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.
Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been wary of a sharp military escalation, warning it could further destabilize the Middle East at a time when President Trump has said he hopes to reduce the number of American troops in the region.
Still, American officials said Mr. Esper authorized planning for a new campaign inside Iraq — even as the military reduces its counterterrorism presence there — to provide options for Mr. Trump in the event that Iranian-backed militia groups escalate their own attacks against American troops, said two senior administration officials.
During an Oval Office meeting on March 19, Mr. Trump did not make a decision about whether he might authorize the new campaign in Iraq, but allowed the planning to continue, according to American officials.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment. Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement: “Operation Inherent Resolve is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and remains focused on partnering with Iraqi security forces for the shared goal of permanently defeating ISIS remnants. We are not going to discuss hypotheticals or internal deliberations.”
The debate is happening as top Pentagon officials and senior commanders worldwide are also expressing growing concerns about coronavirus cases expanding rapidly in the ranks, potentially threatening the military’s ability to field combat-ready troops.
Several American officials said they were struck by the blunt tone of General White’s memorandum — sent on March 16, the day after he received the Pentagon directive to start the planning — which they said emphasized the costs and risks against an effort to try to destroy the militia group, known as Kataib Hezbollah.
The memo also pointed out that such a campaign might run afoul of the current agreement with the Iraqi government that allows American troops to operate in the country.
Go to link