BAGHDAD - Iraq has been witnessing a period of relative calm between the United States and Iran on its soil in recent weeks, with no missile attacks or retaliatory raids, but experts warn that the rivals could be using this time to prepare for an escalation.
When two Americans and a British soldier were killed in a missile attack on a coalition base just north of Baghdad in mid-March, the US Department of Defence began planning a devastating response.
"Even if we haven't seen rocket attacks, the Iranians are repositioning themselves for something else," said Phillip Smyth, who researches Shiite armed factions for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Meanwhile, US troops in Iraq are hunkered down and taking the threat more seriously," Smyth said.
The retaliation plan included simultaneously striking over 100 Iranian targets on Iraqi soil, including the Hezbollah Brigades, the Iran-backed faction accused of launching the Katyusha rockets against the US base.
A senior Iraqi official said at the end of March that "the Americans have told us that they will simultaneously strike 122 targets in Iraq if more of their citizens are killed."
The Hezbollah Brigades faction in Iraq operates under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which furthers the Iranian agenda outside the Islamic Republic.
But hitting that many targets in a country that continues to accuse Washington of violating its sovereignty, and whose deputies voted to put an end to US military presence, may have dire consequences.
This sentiment is shared by the US commander for the anti-jihadist coalition General Pat White who, according to a US military official, expressed ‘concerns’ that matters might spiral out of control, and that such a large military operation would risk exposing thousands of coalition forces to ‘serious’ threats.
Non-US coalition members are "nervous" the bombing could kill civilians or push Baghdad to permanently oust foreign troops, diplomats from two coalition countries said.
The plan has been set aside for now as the US fights the spread of COVID-19.
"But if there's another attack and it kills an American, then all of this comes back again," one diplomat said.
Coalition no more
The anti-jihadist coalition in Iraq has been fragmented since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, with 2,500 military coaches, carrying various nationalities, leaving Iraq without plans to return, and six coalition bases handed over to the Iraqi army.
The remaining troops are mostly Americans gathered in a few bases, two of which are heavily protected by the recently-deployed Patriot missile defence system.
"The coalition, as we know it, is no longer standing," one diplomat said on Monday.
Tehran loyalists have been sending contradictory messages in response to the departures.
The Hezbollah Brigades pledged that ‘there will be no killing of these forces if their withdrawal continues with the goal of leaving Iraq completely.
But soon thereafter, the head of the PMF bloc accused Washington of redeploying purely for tactical reasons, ‘in order to protect its soldiers’.
New government, new relationship?
Meanwhile, Iraq is potentially witnessing the formation of a new government after Mustafa Kadhemi became the third prime minister-designate endowed with the responsibility of forming a cabinet.
The former intelligence chief is known for his negotiating skills, and Washington has said it will send a delegation to Iraq in June to renegotiate military and economic ties.
Relations between Baghdad and Washington have deteriorated significantly since the US assassination of Iranian Major General and leader of the Quds force Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad airport in January.
The death of Soleimani marked the first time that the US had deliberately killed a top Iranian official.