Flashpoints

Out of Iraq? Anger in Baghdad following US airstrikes against Iran-backed militia renews call for American troops to leave

Video shows US strikes against Hezbollah in Iraq - Raw Video

The Department of Defense released footage of some of the recent strikes against Hezbollah targets - three in Iraq and and two in Syria - it carried out near the end of December. (Tech. Sgt. Joseph Park / U.S. Air Forces Central Command)

Powerful political blocs within Iraq are describing Sunday’s U.S. strikes against an Iran-backed militia as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty — once again raising concerns about the viability of long-term plans to keep American troops in the country.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Badr al-Ziyadi, a member of Iraq’s parliament who is also part of a coalition close to powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has called for an end to the agreement that keeps American troops in the country.

Sadr, whose militias fought and killed U.S. troops for years following the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, said Monday that he will work with Iran-backed militias to end the U.S. presence in Iraq through legal means, but noted that he will “take other actions” if that strategy fails, according to a Reuters’ story.

Sadr has called on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to halt “irresponsible actions,” Reuters reported.

U.S. forces struck five Kata’ib Hizbollah targets on Sunday, according to a Pentagon news release, in retaliation for a Friday attack on an Iraqi coalition base in Kirkuk that killed one U.S. civilian and injured four American troops.

Kata’ib Hizbollah is an Iran-backed militia that U.S. officials have blamed for a series of rocket attacks against Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. There have been 11 attacks targeting coalition installations over the last two months.

The locations of the U.S. airstrikes Sunday — three in Iraq and two in Syria — included storage facilities and command-and-control centers that the Iran-backed group uses to carry out attacks, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in the release.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Sunday during a press conference held at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida that the strikes were carried out by F-15E Strike Eagles.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Esper phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi about a half an hour before the strikes and said that U.S. forces were about to bomb the Iran-backed militia.

Abdul-Mahdi asked for the U.S. to call off the strikes, according to the Wall Street Journal story.

“We consider it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that will threaten Iraq and the region,” Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, quoted Abdul-Mahdi as saying, according to the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. F-15Es struck five targets belonging to an Iranian-backed militia Dec. 29, 2019. (Defense Department)
U.S. F-15Es struck five targets belonging to an Iranian-backed militia Dec. 29, 2019. (Defense Department)

Top Iraqi Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani denounced the U.S. strikes, describing the attack as “illegal practices carried out by some sides” that violated Iraqi sovereignty, Reuters reported.

“The Iraqi authorities alone are entitled to deal with these practices and take the necessary measures to prevent them. They are called upon to do so and to ensure Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores and that others do not interfere in its internal affairs,” Sistani said, according to Reuters.

Hashd al-Shaabi, part of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, released a statement Sunday following the strikes saying that nearly 25 of its fighters were killed in the U.S. attacks.

Iran has denied any role in the recent spate of rocket attacks that have rocked Iraqi bases housing coalition troops.

“We strongly deny any role in attacks against the U.S. forces. This undocumented U.S. claim cannot justify bombing and killing people in violation of the international laws,” Ali Rabiyee, a spokesman for the Iranian government, told Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency.

“This incident showed again that as long as the U.S. continues its uninvited presence in Iraq and Syria, peace will be out of reach for everyone,” Rabiyee told Fars.

However, the U.S. State Department doesn’t appear to be sweating over any repercussions or political fallout stemming from Sunday’s attack.

A senior U.S. State Department official told reporters Monday that the U.S. had been sharing information with Iraqi officials about the rocket attacks and informed them of their responsibility to protect U.S. troops in the country.

That’s a duty that Iraq has “not taken the appropriate steps to do so," according to one senior U.S. State Department official on Monday.

U.S. officials have warned Iran and its proxies to halt rocket attacks in the country. In mid-December Esper phoned the Iraqi prime minister and asked for help to stop the rocket attacks.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran and its leaders in December of a “decisive U.S. response” if the regime or its militias harm American troops or allies in the region.

Iran often uses asymmetrical force just below the threshold of major armed conflict across the Middle East to confront the U.S.

Tehran’s use of proxy forces and militias complicate efforts to assign blame to Iran.

Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction of their headquarters in the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019. (AP Photo)
Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction of their headquarters in the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019. (AP Photo)

A U.S. State Department official told reporters Monday that Sunday’s strikes were about restoring deterrence and “not giving Iran the fiction of deniability” by using proxy forces to orchestrate deadly attacks across the Middle East.

“President Trump’s been pretty darn patient, and he’s made clear at the same time that when Americans’ lives were at risk we would respond, and that’s what the Department of Defense did yesterday,” Pompeo said on “Fox & Friends” Monday.

The U.S. has deployed an additional 14,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East over the last six months to confront Iran’s malign behavior across the region.

Esper has said he is considering deploying additional forces to counter Iran.

Military Times’ Pentagon bureau chief Meghann Myers contributed to this story.

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