(CNSNews.com) – In a significant escalation against Iranian regime proxies, U.S. forces carried out military strikes against five locations used by an Iraqi Shi’ite militia – three inside Iraq and two in Syria.
Sunday’s strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah bases came two days after an American civilian contractor was killed in a rocket attack on a military base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq where U.S. and Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces are located.
Four U.S. and two Iraqi military personnel were injured when more than 30 rockets were fired at the K1 military base on Friday night local time.
Al-Manar, an official media outlet of another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon, quoted a Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) spokesman, Jaafar Al-Husseini, as saying 24 “martyrs” had been killed in the U.S. strikes on bases in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and more than 50 wounded.
“Al-Husseini warned that the U.S. aggression will be met with an appropriate response,” Al-Manar added.
KH, an Iraqi militia supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, is one of several Iraqi Shi’ite militias held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq War. It has been a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) since 2009.
KH continues to operate in Iraq as part of the so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF), formed in 2014 to help Iraqi troops fight Sunni ISIS terrorists.
Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the strikes came in response to repeated KH attacks on Iraqi bases hosting coalition forces, and aimed to “degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces.”
Hoffman said in a statement targets included weapon storage facilities as well as “command and control locations that KH uses to plan and execute attacks on OIR coalition forces.”
“KH has a strong linkage with Iran’s Quds Force and has repeatedly received lethal aid and other support from Iran that it has used to attack OIR coalition forces.”
Both Iraqi President Barham Salih and a spokesman for the outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the attacks as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
(The strikes come at a time of political turmoil in Iraq, where after raging street protests Mahdi announced his resignation at the end of November. Late last week Salih also submitted a letter of resignation to parliament.)
The Pentagon statement seemed to anticipate such condemnation.
“The U.S. and its coalition partners fully respect Iraqi sovereignty, and support a strong and independent Iraq,” Hoffman said. “The U.S., however, will not be deterred from exercising its right of self-defense.”
He said Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Mahdi “have shared with each other their commitment to see these KH attacks on [Iraqi Security Forces] and OIR forces cease once and for all.”
“Iran and their KH proxy forces must cease their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces, and respect Iraq’s sovereignty, to prevent additional defensive actions by U.S. forces.”
‘By all legitimate means’
Another Qods Force-backed PMF affiliate, Asaib al-Haq (“(The League of the Righteous”) responded to the attacks on its KH ally by demanding that U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq.
“The American military presence has become a burden for the Iraqi state and a source of threat against our forces,” it said in a statement cited by Al-Manar. “It is therefore imperative for all of us to do everything to expel them by all legitimate means.”
The U.S. has approximately 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq.
Like KH, Asaib al-Haq has a history of deadly attacks on U.S. troops during the Iraq War.
The group’s leader has on several occasions over the past two years threatened attacks on U.S. troops deployed in Iraq to train the ISF.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a U.S. Army veteran with combat service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said, “Today’s strikes against Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria are a justified response to the killing of an American and the wounding of several American service members and Iraqis. Tehran must stop attacking Americans or else face even graver consequences.”
Earlier, Cotton had tweeted in response to reports of the attack on the K1 base, “If American blood was shed by an Iran-backed group, Tehran ought to face swift and severe consequences.”
Cotton served in Iraq at a time when the Iranian-backed militias were attacking U.S. forces with “explosively formed penetrators,” an especially deadly form of roadside bomb.
U.S. commanders blamed the Qods Force and allied militias for the deaths of some 500 U.S. military personnel from 2005 onwards.
Earlier this month Esper told reporters he suspected Iran was behind an increase in attacks in Iraq, and said the U.S. was looking to its Iraqi partners to take action “to get that under control, because it’s not good for anybody.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned recently that any attack by Iran or its proxies “that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive U.S. response.”