LONDON – Iraq condemned a wave of U.S. airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militias early Friday, saying that they had killed soldiers and a civilian and could spark further escalation.
The U.S. military said that it had launched “defensive precision strikes” against targets linked to the Kataib Hezbollah group, in retaliation for a salvo of rocket attacks that killed one British and two American servicemen Wednesday on an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad.
“The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper said in a statement. “As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”
But the U.S. strikes were met with a flurry of Iraqi condemnation, in a manner reminiscent of the widespread censure that followed an earlier round of brinkmanship between the United States and Iran and piled pressure on thousands of U.S.-led coalition forces to leave Iraq.
The Iraqi military described Friday’s attacks as “treacherous,” saying they had killed three regular soldiers, as well as two policemen whose bodies had yet to be recovered from the rubble. Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, described the strikes as a “violation of national sovereignty.”
Authorities in charge of the Karbala International Airport said that one of their facilities had also been hit, and that a civilian working there had been killed. “The airport is purely civilian,” they said in a statement, calling local media to the scene to back up their assertion.
The Pentagon statement described the five locations it had bombed as “weapons storage facilities” that housed weapons used to target U.S. and coalition troops.
President Donald Trump has made it clear that the death of American personnel in Iraq is a red line for his administration. The death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack late last year set in motion escalating tit-for-tat strikes that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war: Iran-backed militias besieged Baghdad’s U.S. Embassy as guards in the capital’s Green Zone stepped aside. Trump then ordered the killing of renowned Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil, and Iran hit back with a wave of ballistic missiles that came close to killing U.S. soldiers.
Tensions have ebbed since their peak in January, as has much of the immediate pressure for coalition troops to leave Iraq. But the potential for another round of escalation has never been far away. U.S. and European officials say that Iran-backed militias have continued to launch rocket attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting coalition troops, or on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Although there was no immediate response from Kataib Hezbollah on Friday, the Iraqi militia network of which it is a part – known as the Popular Mobilization Forces – said it was preparing an “important” statement.
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Salim reported from Baghdad.