Coalition allies send conflicting signals on Iran threat

British general says that they did not sense any intensified threat from Iran in region, but US Central said Command says alert levels have been stepped up due to Iran threat.

WASHINGTON - Coalition forces in Iraq and Syria sent conflicting signals Tuesday over Iran's alleged threat, with a British general appearing to take issue with Washington's alarms over an imminent danger posed by Tehran to the US and its allies.

Major General Chris Ghika, a British spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said that they did not sense any intensified threat from Iran in the region, even though the US military was boosting its forces in the Gulf.

"There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria," Ghika told reporters via teleconference at the Pentagon.

That brought a sharp retort from the US Central Command, which in the past nine days has accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier task force to the Gulf, adding to it B-52 bombers, a Patriot missile battery and an amphibious assault ship, in the face of the alleged Iranian threat.

Ghika's comments "run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region," Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban said.

The mixed signals underscored questions about the US ramping up its forces in the Gulf without having explained the intelligence behind the move.

On May 5, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the Pentagon was sending the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the region "in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings" related to Iran.

In the week since, the Pentagon said it would also position a Patriot missile battery and an amphibious assault ship in the region as a warning to Tehran.

Iran has denied planning anything and US allies have warned of the danger of escalation, saying it heightens the chance that an accident could set off a major conflict.

Both Washington and Tehran said Tuesday that they were not seeking war - but, in Sochi, Russia, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again issued a warning.

"We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion."

US: 'High level of alert'

Ghika's comments, and the lack of any details on what Washington believes Tehran was planning, has fed suspicions among critics that President Donald Trump's administration was firing up tensions in the region without justification.

"We've seen no change in the posture or laydown" of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iraqi paramilitary group with close ties to Tehran, Ghika said.

"Of course PMF is a very broad range of groups. Many of them are compliant and we have seen no change in their posture since the recent exchange between the US and Iran."

Ghika denied he was contradicting his US partners, and said the Inherent Resolve forces were already postured against a range of threats.

"I don't think we're out of step with the White House at all," Ghika said.

But Central Command's Urban said that in fact alert levels had been stepped up due to the Iran threat.

"US Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve, has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria," he said in a statement.

"As a result, OIR is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq."

Washington has ramped up pressure on Tehran in recent days, accusing Iran of planning "imminent" attacks in the region in addition to bolstering the American military presence in the Gulf.

"Numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq and regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians," a travel advisory warned.

"Anti-US sectarian militias may also threaten US citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq."

The US last year shut its consulate in the protest-hit southern Iraqi city of Basra, blaming "indirect fire" by Iran-backed forces and warning its rival of retaliation for any damage.

And Washington on Wednesday ordered the pullout of employees from both the US Embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil.

A US State Department spokesman said the decision to withdraw non-emergency staff was based on a security assessment, but would not give details on how many personnel were leaving.

"Ensuring the safety of US government personnel and citizens is our highest priority and we are confident in the Iraqi security services' (ability) to protect us," he said.

"But this threat is serious and we want to reduce the risk of harm."