After US strikes, Iranian proxy says it doesn’t seek further conflict with US

Spokesperson for Iran-backed militia in Iraq says targeted sites were largely ‘devoid of fighters and military personnel’ but other sources reported casualties

A satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows a military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. The damage caused by the drone strike can be seen in the center-left of the photo. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)
A satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows a military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. The damage caused by the drone strike can be seen in the center-left of the photo. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — An Iraqi militia official on Saturday hinted at a desire to deescalate tensions in the Middle East following retaliatory strikes launched by the United States against dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Hussein al-Mosawi, spokesperson for Harakat al-Nujaba, one of the main Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, in an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad condemned the US strikes, saying Washington “must understand that every action elicits a reaction.” But he then struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that “we do not wish to escalate or widen regional tensions.”

Mosawi said the targeted sites in Iraq were mainly “devoid of fighters and military personnel at the time of the attack.”

Syrian state media reported that there were casualties from the strikes but did not give a number. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that 23 people, all rank-and-file fighters, were killed.

Iraqi government spokesperson Bassim al-Awadi said in a statement Saturday that the strikes in Iraq near the Syrian border killed 16, including civilians, and there was “significant damage” to homes and private properties.

A US official said Saturday that an initial battle damage assessment showed the US had struck each of its planned targets in addition to a few “dynamic targets” that popped up as the mission unfolded, including a surface-to-air missile site and drone launch sites. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that were not yet public, did not yet have a casualty assessment.

US President Joe Biden watches as an Army carry team moves the flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of US Army Sgt. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett, 23, of Savannah, Ga., during a casualty return at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Feb. 2, 2024. Moffett was killed in a drone attack in Jordan on Jan. 28. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Iraq’s foreign ministry announced Saturday it would summon the US embassy’s chargé d’affaires — the ambassador being outside of the country — to deliver a formal protest over US strikes on “Iraqi military and civilian sites.” The US said Friday it had informed Iraq of the impending strikes before they started.

The air assault was the opening salvo of US retaliation for a drone strike that killed three US troops in Jordan last weekend. The US has blamed that strike on the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias.

Iran, meanwhile, has attempted to distance itself from the attack, saying that the militias act independently of its direction.

Iraqi spokesperson al-Awadi condemned the strikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, particularly since some of them targeted facilities of the Population Mobilization Forces. The PMF, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias, was officially brought under the umbrella of the Iraqi armed forces after it joined the fight against the Islamic State in 2014, but in practice it continues to operate largely outside of state control.

The Popular Mobilization Forces said in a statement Saturday that one of the sites targeted was an official security headquarters of the group. In addition to the 16 killed, it said 36 people had been wounded, “while the search is still ongoing for the bodies of a number of the missing.”

The Iraqi government has been in a delicate position since a group of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias calling itself Islamic Resistance in Iraq — many of whose members are also part of the PMF — began launching attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria on Oct. 18. The group described the strikes as retaliation for Washington’s support for Israel in the war in Gaza.

Behind the scenes, Iraqi officials have attempted to rein in the militias, while also condemning US retaliatory strikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and calling for an exit of the 2,500 US troops who are in the country as part of an international coalition to fight IS. Last month, Iraqi and US military officials launched formal talks to wind down the coalition’s presence, a process that will likely take years.

One of the main Iran-backed militias, Kataeb Hezbollah, said it was suspending attacks on American troops following Sunday’s strike that killed the US troops in Jordan, to avoid “embarrassing” the Iraqi government.

Fighters lift flags of Iraq and paramilitary groups, including al-Nujaba and Kataeb Hezbollah, during a funeral in Baghdad for five militants killed a day earlier in a US strike in northern Iraq, on December 4, 2023. (Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP)

Meanwhile Saturday, the US military’s Central Command acknowledged it had had a series of skirmishes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden with Yemen’s Houthi rebels. On Friday, the USS Carney shot down a drone over the Gulf of Aden and there were no injuries or damage. The US also conducted airstrikes on four Houthi drones preparing to launch that it said “presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and the US Navy ships in the region.”

Overnight, F/A-18 fighter jets from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, along with the USS Laboon, shot down seven drones in the Red Sea.

Escalations between the US and Iranian proxies began following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Israel declared war on the terrorist group following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel.

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