US strikes back at militia after deadly attack on Iraqi base

A rocket-rigged truck launcher was used in the attack on Camp Taji, a few miles north of Baghdad. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: The American military struck back at an Iraqi militia believed responsible for the rocket attack that killed two Americans and a Briton, the US Defence Department said on Thursday night. The strikes against Kataib Hezbollah, which is closely associated with Iran, "targeted five weapon storage facilities to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks against Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces", the department said in a statement. "These weapons storage facilities include facilities that housed weapons used" to target American and coalition forces.

"As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region," Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in the statement Katyusha rockets struck Camp Taji, an Iraqi base that hosts coalition personnel for training and advising missions, on Wednesday. Three coalition service members were killed and about a dozen people were wounded, according to a coalition statement.

Iraqi security forces found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from Camp Taji after the strike, which occurred only months after a similar assault almost led to a direct military confrontation with Iran. Iran, which steadily expanded its influence in Iraq after the fall of the dictator Saddam Hussein, uses asymmetrical warfare to undermine American interests across the Middle East through the use of militias, including Kataib Hezbollah and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. A rocket assault in late December that killed an American contractor and wounded American service personnel resulted in the US striking five bases in Iraq and Syria used by an Iranian-backed militia.

Then in early January the US killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who the Trump administration accused of planning more attacks against American targets. Iran responded by firing more than a dozen missiles at US-Iraqi bases. The attack on Camp Taji took place on March 11, which according to several online biographies, was Soleimani's birthday,

While not a direct strike on Iran, the American reprisal comes at a particularly difficult time for the Iranian leadership. The shooting down of a commercial airliner in January and the killing of anti-government protesters in 2019 amid a worsening economic crisis, has put President Hassan Rouhani's government under siege. And that was before the coronavirus erupted in the country, infecting or killing some senior officials.

The virus may make Iran even more of a military threat, General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that the virus could be part of a biological attack on the Islamic Republic, according to a statement published by the semi-official Fars News agency on Thursday. "Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against US and coalition forces in Iraq," McKenzie said at the Senate hearing.

"This indicates Iran's 'desire to continue malign activities'" despite periods of decreased tension with the US, he said. "We have reestablished a rough form of deterrence, what I would call contested deterrence with Iran, at the level of state on state attacks," he added. "What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly against us.

And that is a far more difficult area to deter."

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