Two dead in US strikes against Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq
US forces bombed sites used by Iran-backed militants in Iraq early Wednesday after a spate of attacks targeting US personnel, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said, killing two people, according to Iraqi officials.
The strikes came just days after US troops in western Iraq were targeted with ballistic missiles and rockets in an attack the Pentagon blamed on militants supported by Tehran.
According to Iraqi sources, the US strikes targeted the Hezbollah Brigades, a group affiliated with the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation force), an alliance of Iran-backed former paramilitary groups now integrated in Iraq's regular armed forces.
They hit sites in the Jurf al-Sakhr area, south of Baghdad, as well as in the Al-Qaim area on the border with Syria.
Two people were killed and two wounded in the bombardments in the Al-Qaim sector, an interior ministry official and a former member of the Hashed al-Shaabi said.
The US strikes come against an already explosive regional backdrop, fuelled by the war in Gaza between Washington's ally Israel and the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
In a statement, Austin said US forces had carried out "necessary and proportionate strikes" against "three facilities used by the Iranian-backed Kataeb Hezbollah militia group (the Hezbollah Brigades) and other Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq".
"These precision strikes are in direct response to a series of escalatory attacks against US and coalition personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias," he said, referring to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group.
US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria have been targeted in more than 150 attacks since mid-October, many of them claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose alliance of Iran-linked groups that oppose US support for Israel in the Gaza conflict.
Kataeb Hezbollah military spokesperson Jaafar al-Husseini said in a post on X that the group would continue to target "enemy bases" until the end of Israel's siege in Gaza and singled out US support for Israel's campaign.
The Iraqi prime minister's office said in a statement on Wednesday that the strikes will lead to "irresponsible escalation" and violate the country's sovereignty.
Iraq will consider these operations as "aggressive actions" that undermine years of cooperation, the statement added.
US forces have carried out a number of air strikes against the groups they hold responsible, drawing a backlash from Iraq which has accused the coalition of overstepping its mission to assist the campaign against IS militants and has called for its withdrawal.
National Security Adviser Qassem al-Araji said Wednesday's strikes were another "flagrant violation of Iraq's sovereignty" and "do not help bring calm".
"The US side should pile on pressure for a halt to the (Israeli) offensive in Gaza rather than targeting and bombing the bases of an Iraqi national body," Araji said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, referring to the Hashed al-Shaabi.
After previous US strikes, Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani has called for the US-led coalition in Iraq to leave, saying the deployment must end to ensure Iraq's security.
There are roughly 2,500 US troops in Iraq and some 900 in neighbouring Syria.
The US military said the latest strikes targeted Hezbollah Brigades "headquarters, storage and training locations for rocket, missile and one-way attack UAV (drone) capabilities".
"Iraq has a significant anti-US political establishment that is actively trying to eject the US forces. America's positioning with Israel has certainly strengthened their political capital"— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) January 11, 2024
Why US airstrikes in Iraq add to fears of a regional war ⬇️https://t.co/DdAjaCZcx3
Classified as a "terrorist" group by Washington and subject to US sanctions, the Brigades have already been targeted by US strikes in recent weeks. The group has publicly supported the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.
Late on Tuesday, several drones targeted an airbase in Iraq hosting US troops, causing injuries and damage, a US military official said.
"Multiple attack drones were launched" at the Ain al-Assad base in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, a US military official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
"Latest reports include injuries and damage to infrastructure," said the official, adding he did not have further details as yet.
An Iraqi security official, meanwhile, said a drone was shot down as it attempted to target the base.
In a statement, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq claimed responsibility for two drone attacks against the base on Tuesday, saying they were acting in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The same base was targeted by at least a dozen missiles on Saturday.
White House Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer described that attack as "very serious", saying it used "ballistic missiles that posed a genuine threat".