The United States launched airstrikes in Iraq against an Iranian-backed militia group that killed two American soldiers.
The Pentagon said that the defensive attacks targeted five bases used by the Iranian-backed paramilitary group Kata’eb Hezbollah, Fox News reported. The early morning strikes were in response to rocket attacks on a U.S.-led coalition base in Iraq that killed two Americans and one British soldier.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies. As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”
Retaliation for American deaths
The Pentagon confirmed that the strikes were in response to a Katyusha rocket attack on Wednesday targeting a base housing American and British troops. 12troops were wounded and five are in serious condition, Fox said.
President Donald Trump authorized the retaliatory strike that swiftly followed. U.S. warplanes targeted five weapons depots used by the group in order “to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks,” the Pentagon said, adding:
These strikes were defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMG) who continue to attack bases hosting OIR [Operation Inherent Resolve] coalition forces.
Defense officials said that the strikes were aimed at deterrence against a belligerent Iran, which has continued to threaten American forces in the region through its proxies. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who is in charge of forces in the Middle East, told a Senate committee Thursday that the Iran-backed Kata’eb Hezbollah was likely the culprit.
Regional tensions escalate
In recent months, Iraq has been the site of back-and-forth attacks between America and Iran and its proxies that reached a dramatic apex in a January airstrike that killed Kata’eb Hezbollah’s founder, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, outside of Baghdad’s airport. The same strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, bringing America and Iran to the brink of open war.
The series of escalations followed a December attack in Iraq that killed an American contractor, which the U.S. blamed on Kata’eb Hezbollah. The U.S. responded with attacks that killed more than 25 of the group’s members. That strike, in turn, set off an attack on America’s embassy in Baghdad.
Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missiles at bases in Iraq housing American troops. No Americans were killed, but many were left with traumatic brain injuries.
Iraq condemns strike
Iraq’s government has expressed anger as the country gets drawn deeper into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran. The country’s parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave its borders in the wake of the Soleimani crisis. Some 5,000 American troops remain within its borders as part of the coalition to defeat ISIS.
Iraq claimed that three soldiers, two policemen and one civilian — and no paramilitary members — were killed by America’s latest act of “aggression.” The state condemned the strike as a breach of its sovereignty and promised consequences.
“This action is against the will of the Iraqi state and a violation of its sovereignty, it strengthens outlaws. No party has the right to substitute itself for the state, its sovereignty, or its legitimate decisions,” said Iraq’s Joint Operations Command.