US strikes Iran-backed forces in Iraq after attack

The US carried out strikes against Iranian-backed forces “across Iraq” on Thursday evening, in retaliation[1] for a deadly missile attack on US and UK forces the day before. American warplanes undertook “defensive precision strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah facilities across Iraq”, a Pentagon official told the FT. Mark Esper, the secretary of defence, had earlier on Thursday officially blamed Iranian-backed forces for the deaths of two US troops and one British soldier in a rocket attack on an Iraqi base on Wednesday.

He warned that the Pentagon had been authorised to respond with “any action necessary” to protect its forces. Mr Esper said he had met with US president Donald Trump and was given authority to “do what we need to do”. “We know they are backed by Iran,” he said. “We will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.” A Pentagon spokesperson said five sites across Iraq had been targeted.

A person familiar with the matter told the FT that fixed-wing manned aircraft, not drones, unleashed bombs at all five sites. “These are facilities for weapons storage, logistics hubs, et cetera, that have been identified as facilitating the rocket attacks that Kata’ib Hizbollah has been conducting. And, obviously, we’re not going to let them do that,” a defence official told the FT.

The defence official said the Pentagon has counted more than 35 rocket attacks against the US since May 2019. The official said commanders on the ground were assessing threats and making requests for additional support as they saw fit. The official said the Pentagon was due to give a full damage assessment early on Friday morning.

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Kata’ib Hizbollah is one of Iraq’s more militant Iranian-aligned factions and was blamed by Washington for a similar rocket barrage that killed an American contractor in December, triggering a chain of events that brought the US and Iran to the brink of war.

No group has yet claimed responsibility but the Iraqi Shia militia Kata’ib Hizbollah praised the attack in a statement on its website. “God sends blessings on those who undertook the exact jihadi operation which targeted the occupying American forces in Taji Base”, the group said, adding that it was time to force the “aggressors” to leave. Washington’s relationship with Tehran has deteriorated rapidly since Mr Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018.

The latest incident threatens to provoke another dangerous escalation. The attack on the base north of Baghdad, known as Camp Taji, consisted of about 18 Katyusha rockets that struck the facility housing US-led coalition forces, according to Centcom, the US military command covering the region. Iraqi security forces said they found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from the base.

General Mark Milley, the top US military officer, had blamed “Shia militia groups” for the attack. The US has previously blamed Iran-backed Iraqi militias for launching rockets at bases hosting American troops and in the vicinity of the US embassy in Baghdad’s green zone. But the killing of American personnel has always been considered a “red line” in Washington.

“Today’s deadly attack on Iraq’s Camp Taji military base will not be tolerated,” said Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, on Twitter following a call with British foreign secretary Dominic Raab. “[Mr Raab] and I agree — those responsible must be held accountable.” Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, on Wednesday described the attack as “deplorable”. There are 400 UK military personnel deployed in Iraq and about half of these are stationed at the Taji base.

“Our servicemen and women work tirelessly every day to uphold security and stability in the region — their presence makes us all safer,” Mr Johnson said. “We will continue to liaise with our international partners to fully understand the details of this abhorrent attack.” The Trump administration responded to the killing of an American contractor in December by launching strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah bases, killing at least 25 fighters. That led to protests against the US embassy in Baghdad and an attempt by militiamen to breach the diplomatic mission.

Days later, the US killed[2] Qassem Soleimani[3], Iran’s most powerful military commander, in a drone strike near Baghdad airport. Iran vowed revenge and fired more than a dozen cruise missiles at two Iraqi bases housing American troops. None was killed and Washington and Tehran moved to de-escalate tensions but the Islamic regime has vowed to drive US troops out of the Middle East.

It has identified Iraq, which is home to more than 5,000 American soldiers, as its main target. Brig Gen Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, told the Financial Times last month[4] that “complementary blows will happen over time” with the aim of pushing US forces out of the region in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. But he added that Tehran would not stage attacks against the US “unless America does [against Iran]”.

He said Iran “saw no reason to order” its proxies to act, but would not “prevent them from acting”.

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Photos posted on an official Twitter account of the Iraqi prime minister’s security cell showed a small white truck in undergrowth carrying a shell platform with only three missiles left, found south of the Rashidiya area, which is near Camp Taji. A US official declined to comment on Camp Taji’s defences but said the rockets had a range of at least a mile so “the truck didn’t need to pull up right outside the base”. The US has been seeking to move Patriot missiles into Iraq in order to defend its bases, but negotiations faltered over a demand from Iraqi leaders for the US to pull out its troops in the wake of Soleimani’s killing.

US, British and other western troops returned to Iraq after Isis launched a blitz across northern and western parts of the country in 2014, seizing cities including Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi.

Baghdad claimed victory over Isis in December 2017, but the western forces have remained as part of an international coalition against Isis and to help train Iraqi troops.

References

  1. ^ in retaliation (www.ft.com)
  2. ^ killed (www.ft.com)
  3. ^ Soleimani (www.ft.com)
  4. ^ told the Financial Times last month (www.ft.com)

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