Iran warned the United States it is leading the Middle East to disaster amid the coronavirus pandemic after reports that Patriot air defence missiles were deployed to Iraq.
Washington had been in talks with Baghdad about the proposed deployment since January, but it was not immediately clear whether it secured its approval or not. Iran, which wields huge influence in its western neighbour, said it had not.
The US deployment runs “counter to the official position of the Iraqi government, parliament and people”, a foreign ministry statement said on Wednesday.
It called for a halt to “warmongering during the coronavirus outbreak” and warned US military activities in the region could lead it to “instability and disaster”.
Iran is in the throes of one of the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks with more than 3,000 deaths. The US death toll has now surpassed Iran’s, topping 4,000.
US forces should “respect the wishes of the Iraqi people and government and leave the country”, the Iranian foreign ministry added.
“The US is moving defensive systems into Iraq to protect Iraqi, coalition, and US service members from a variety of air threats seen at Iraqi bases that host coalition troops,” Pentagon spokesperson Sean Robertson told Al Jazeera.
“It is important to note that repeated attacks on Iraqi bases, which violate Iraqi sovereignty, have killed and injured Iraqi, coalition, and US service members. The establishment of ground-based air defenses in Iraq continues, but for operational security reasons, we are not providing status updates as those systems come online. The Iraqi Government is well aware of our collective need for air defense protection of service members within Iraq, and we continue to coordinate closely with our Iraqi counterparts.”
The Patriot is Washington’s principal anti-missile system.
Its deployment to Iraq comes after a spate of rocket and other attacks on bases and other facilities used by US personnel that Washington has blamed on Tehran-backed Shia militias or Tehran itself.
One of the Patriot batteries was delivered to the Ain al-Assad in western Iraq last week and is now being assembled, a US defence official and an Iraqi military source said.
Ain al-Assad was hit by a retaliatory Iranian missile attack in January after Washington killed Tehran’s foreign operations chief, General Qasem Soleimani, in a drone attack just outside Baghdad airport.
A second battery was deployed to a base in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
Two more are still in Kuwait, where Washington has rear bases for its operations in Iraq, the US official said.
Former head of US Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, told Al Jazeera the US is deploying the missiles to protect its forces in Iraq.
Fallon called the Iranian reaction as “expected rhetoric out of Tehran”.
“The US move is intended to protect the remaining US troops in Iraq”, especially after the bombardment of Iraqi bases where US troops were stationed.
Fallon said the US troops are staying in Iraq “to provide stability in small numbers as reasonable to do that”.
Iraqi leaders have resisted US deployment of the advanced weapons system for fear it would anger Iran and further ratchet up tensions between its main allies.
On Monday, Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned against any “offensive military action without the approval of the Iraqi government”. He did not specifically mention the Patriot deployment.
Iran’s president said on Wednesday the US had missed an opportunity to lift sanctions on his country during the coronavirus outbreak, though he said the penalties had not hampered Tehran’s fight against the infection.
“It was a great opportunity for Americans to apologise … and to lift the unjust and unfair sanctions on Iran,” Hassan Rouhani said in a televised cabinet meeting.
“The sanctions have failed to hamper our efforts to fight against the coronavirus outbreak.”
Iran reported 138 additional deaths from the coronavirus on Wednesday, pushing its death toll to 3,036, a health official said.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted the US might ease the crippling US sanctions against Iran to help the coronavirus pandemic.
Though Pompeo did not give a concrete indication of how or when the US would be doing that, he told reporters humanitarian and medical supplies are exempt from sanctions that Washington reimposed on Tehran after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.
Additional reporting by Ali Younes