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TEL AVIV: As the COVID-19 virus hammers Iran, killing senior government officials and at least several thousand citizens, Israel may be readying for a confrontation, even as the US signals that it is ready to act against Iranian forces on Iranian soil, should it be necessary.
A joint military exercise of the IAF and the U.S. Air Force started yesterday over southern Israel. Expected to end tomorrow, a large number of F-35 fighters will perform a variety of missions over the desert.
According to the IDF, the exercise will be conducted only in the air. Israel defense sources told Breaking Defense the exercise includes large formations of fighter aircraft, including F-35s, performing joint attacks on ground targets with the two air forces sharing targeting data. The sources said the U.S fighter aircraft flew to Israel from the Gulf region and are air-refueled. No US aircraft will land in Israel.
The United States and the United Arab Emirates held a large exercise, Native Fury, on Monday with troops from both countries operating side by side at Al Hamra Military Base. They practiced clearing and taking a Middle East city with 4,000 U.S. troops from the Army, Marines and Navy. They used armored vehicles and other equipment from Kuwait and the island of Diego Garcia.
The US Ambassador to UAE, John Rakolta, told the Associated Press that the exercise was “defensive in nature,” when asked about Iran. “I don’t believe that they’re intended to demonstrate a provocative act to the Iranians to say we’re coming,” he told the AP. “Rather, we’re protecting ourselves and we want to sit down at the conference table and negotiate a lasting peace settlement.” The fact that the US and UAE went ahead with the exercise in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic speaks volumes about both the trust between the two states, as well as their intention to send a clear message to nearby Iran.
Israeli experts say the Iranian conduct in recent weeks has combined an attempt to exploit the high death toll in Iran from the COVID-19 pandemic to pressure the United States to soften sanctions, and help ensure that European states do not join them.
The Iranians believe that President Trump is preoccupied with the problems of the virus, Israeli experts say, and will hesitate to harm Iran in its current vulnerable state. Several American news outlets have reported that President Trump doesn’t want to appear heartless and attack Iran while the virus sweeps through the country.
Sima Shine, a senior researcher in the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) told Breaking Defense that Washington has already planned an attack against Iranian forces inside Iran, but it “was postponed because of the bad situation in Iran due to the plague.” This option, she said, remains on the table and any more attacks on “American forces in Iraq may result in such an attack.” Israeli experts say U.S forces in Iraq should expect more attacks by Iranian militias.
In parallel, the U.S has been intensifying its attacks on Iranian bases in the area. The Americans struck the Imam Ali base in Syria. Images from an Israeli spy satellite show 13 structures in the base that were completely destroyed. Two others were partially damaged. Iraqi sources say 20 people were killed in this attack.
Sources in Israel say that Abdulaziz Al-Mahmadawi, the new deputy chief of Al-Qash’ad al-Sha’bi troops in Iraq, recently visited Qassem Soleimani’s tomb in the Iranian city of Karman and discussed continued activity against the U.S. to avenge Soleimani’s death. The US killed Soleimani and the former deputy chief of the Shia militia in a recent strike at Baghdad airport.
Since late October, there have been 24 rocket attacks on the U.S embassy in Baghdad or against bases where foreign troops are deployed, killing three American military personnel, one British soldier and one Iraqi soldier. Some 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition.
Iran, sources here say, is taking advantage of the political chaos in Iraq following the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abed Al-Muhdi to continue using its loyal militia against the US military in Iraq.
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