A senior Iranian commander travelled to Baghdad and met Tehran-backed militants to urge de-escalation immediately after the attack that killed three US soldiers at the Jordanian-Syrian border, informed sources told The National on Thursday.
The attack against a US base just inside Jordan on Sunday was attributed by Washington to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an Iran-backed group of militias that includes Kataib Hezbollah. The strike sparked fears of escalation after US President Joe Biden vowed to retaliate.
“A top IRGC commander visited Baghdad after the Jordan strike and urged the factions to de-escalate a bit,” one of the sources said.
His visit came before the Kataib Hezbollah group announced on Tuesday that it was suspending attacks against US targets.
“The Kataib Hezbollah statement was the fruit of a direct Iranian request to de-escalate with the Americans and the Iraqi government," added the sources.
The IRGC commander's visit was confirmed by an Iraqi politician linked to the Co-ordination Framework, the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament, which includes representatives of Iran-backed political factions and militias.
Shiite lawmakers told The National on Wednesday that Tehran and the CF believed that the militias “went too far” in their attack, which was rare in terms of both killing US troops and hitting Jordanian territory.
Iran's quick involvement at a senior level suggests Tehran is keen to avoid any uncontrolled escalation with the US, as tensions are high across the region, with the Israel-Gaza war threatening to spill over into a regional conflict.
But US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf insisted the US response was "going to be at a time and a place of our choosing and could be in a multitude of ways".
She gave little detail as to what Washington’s response may be and described the attack on the US base in Jordan as “horrendous” and a “tragic loss of life".
“This is part and parcel of a proxy network across the region fostered, in some places created altogether by Iran, resourced by Iran, that has had terrible repercussions on the stability and security of this region,” she said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US would take “all necessary actions” to defend itself and its interests and also suggested expected strikes against Iran-backed militias would involve a number of targets.
“We will have a multi-tiered response,” Mr Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. “We have the ability to respond a number of times, depending on what the situation is.”
“The President will not tolerate attacks on American troops and neither will I.
“Our teammates were killed by radical militias backed by Iran and operating inside Syria and Iraq."
He added that US adversaries do not have a “one-and-done mindset”, suggesting he expected attacks to continue.
“They have a lot of capability. I have a lot more,” he said.
Other militias pledge to fight on
Despite the visit by the Iranian commander to Baghdad, the two other major militia groups under the Islamic Resistance in Iraq umbrella, Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba and Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada, have not announced any suspension of operations against the US.
Late on Wednesday, The True Promise Corps, a small group within the network, announced the “continuation of military operations that target the US occupation forces and the Zionist entity wherever they are in the region”.
These attacks will continue “until the Zionist-American-British aggression against our Palestinian people stops”, the group added, suggesting a potential rift among the Iran-backed factions.
Early on Thursday, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq said it had launched a drone attack against Israel’s Mediterranean commercial port of Haifa. Israel has not confirmed the attack.
The previous day, the US had blamed the Islamic Resistance in Iraq for the attack on the Tower 22 base in Jordan, which killed three American soldiers and wounded about 40. The network claimed three attacks in Syria, including at Al Tanf base, just across the border from Tower 22, but did not mention Tower 22 or Jordan by name.
“We believe that the attack in Jordan was a plan resourced and facilitated by an umbrella group called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which contains multiple groups including Kataib Hezbollah,” said John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesman.
Kataib Hezbollah said its decision to suspend operations was made to prevent any “any embarrassment” to the Iraqi government. But the move appears to have had little effect on Washington.
“With respect to Kataib Hezbollah … we will judge this group as we do all of these Iranian proxy groups; not by what they say, but by what they do,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said Kataib Hezbollah's reported pause in anti-US attacks may indicate some Iran-backed groups are "conscious of benefits" of de-escalation.
But "whether each and every single one of them believes that is another matter", he said. Iran itself may not have the "deciding say" over its allied groups but it has influence that it could use to send out "appropriate messages", he said.
"There need to be parties in all this who say enough is enough," Mr Doyle said. "We need to get back to a situation where we aren’t seeing attacks and missile strikes all over the region."
He said: “Unless we sort out the situation in Gaza, it’s going to be very difficult to keep a lid on all these tensions."