COLOGNE, Germany — European governments fear there will be a disruption in international efforts to combat the Islamic State group in Iraq, as the United States and Iran continue to trade threats following the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike.
The governments of Germany, France and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement late Sunday calling for restraint amid fiery rhetoric by Tehran to avenge the death of its paramilitary Quds Force commander.
Killed near Baghdad airport on Friday along with a high-ranking Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Soleimani was the public face of Iran-backed groups across the region, including in Iraq, mobilized to strengthen Iran’s hand by any means necessary.
“We reiterate our support for the sovereignty and security of Iraq,” read the trinational statement, as issued by the German government. “Another crisis would put at risk the years-long efforts to stabilize Iraq.”
The statement comes after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel foreign troops from its soil in reaction to the Soleimani and Muhandis killings. Such a move would severely hamper efforts to curtail ISIS at a time when officials from the international coalition leading the fight had touted sizable gains against the militant group.
“We also reiterate commitment to continue the fight against the Islamic State,” reads the German-French-British statement. “Preserving the coalition is a high priority. We therefore call on Iraqi authorities to continue to grant all necessary support to the coalition.”
Losing a foothold in the country, where German soldiers train local forces, would be an “enormous loss” for Germany and the other European countries involved there, said Christian Mölling, a senior analyst with the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.
Getting kicked out of the country could reignite a debate here about Germany’s commitment to the mission in the first place, according to Mölling. Already, he said, Berlin is seen as having less skin in the game than France, for example, which saw an attack by ISIS militants in Paris in 2015.
Meanwhile, Western officials are bracing for Iran's retaliation, which experts said could range anywhere from cyberattacks to kinetic strikes to closing the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for international commerce.
The Pentagon over the weekend announced the deployment of several thousand troops to Kuwait in anticipation of attacks on U.S. installations in the region.
Hossein Dehqan, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted by state-run news agency IRNA as saying that the country would "identify the time and place” of any counterattacks. According to the Monday report, Dehqan also said the government would “never enter extensive war with Washington.”
U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, wrote on Twitter that the United States might carry out “disproportionate” responses to any Iranian moves, threatening that his government had already identified a list of targets — including civilian, cultural sites — that would be attacked.
Such rhetoric is seen in Europe as adding flames to a fire that could quickly get out of control, and critics are quick to argue that the Soleimani killing may have ultimately dimmed Washington’s chances to influence the Middle East.
“The Americans have weakened themselves, and Germany is ill-prepared for the current situation,” Mölling said.
And unlike other conflicts that hold the prospect of a better outcome once resolved, he added, “this crisis has no catharsis.”
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News.