Iraq warns US ties at stake after deadly strikes against Iran-backed militia

Ousted PM Abdel Mahdi says attacks ‘force Iraq to review its relations’ with Washington; protesters burn US flags

Iraqis burns the American flag in the southern city of Basra on December 30, 2019, during a demonstration to denounce the previous night's attacks by US planes on several bases belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria. (Hussein FALEH / AFP)
Iraqis burns the American flag in the southern city of Basra on December 30, 2019, during a demonstration to denounce the previous night's attacks by US planes on several bases belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria. (Hussein FALEH / AFP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s government warned Monday that its relations with the United States were at risk after deadly American airstrikes against a pro-Iran group sparked anger on the streets, with protesters torching US flags.

At least 25 fighters were killed in Sunday night’s attacks, which saw US planes hit several bases belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the most radical factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a Tehran-backed Iraqi paramilitary coalition.

The attacks came as Iraq is caught up in mounting tensions between its allies Tehran and Washington while it also grapples with huge street protests against corruption and Iran’s growing political influence in the country.

The strikes “killed 25 and wounded 51, including commanders and fighters, and the toll could yet rise,” said the PMF, which holds major sway in Iraq.

Victims were still being pulled from the rubble of bases near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria, on Monday, it said.

Iraqis wave Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) armed network flags on December 30, 2019, during a demonstration in holy shrine city of Najaf to denounce the previous night’s attacks by US planes on several bases belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria. (Haidar HAMDANI / AFP)

Kataeb Hezbollah said they will hold a mass funeral ceremony on Tuesday in Baghdad near the high-security Green Zone, where the US embassy is located.

Iraq’s government, acting in a caretaker capacity following the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi in the face of street protests, denounced the strikes and warned they could affect ties with Washington.

“American forces acted on their political priorities, not those of the Iraqis,” a statement said, adding that such strikes “violate the sovereignty of Iraq.”

The attacks “force Iraq to review its relations and its security, political and legal framework to protect its sovereignty,” the government added.

The warning came as demonstrators torched US flags in the Shiite-dominated southern cities of Basra and Najaf as well as in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, while lawmakers called for US troops to be booted out of Iraq.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi speaks during a funeral ceremony in Baghdad on October 23, 2019. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP)

Outgoing premier Abdel Mahdi said it is up to parliament to determine the next move, according to a video released by his office.

“We will see what parliament will decide. We are only a caretaker government,” he said.

Caught in the middle

Parliament’s deputy speaker, part of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s bloc, called on the Iraqi state to “take all necessary measures” in the face of the US attacks.

Dozens of lawmakers called on the government to review an agreement allowing the deployment of 5,200 US soldiers in the country, saying the strikes amount to a violation that renders the pact obsolete.

US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker said the strikes were a message to Iran after months of “restraint” by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

Schenker said the strikes were a “proportionate” response for the death Friday of a US civilian contractor in Kirkuk in a Kataeb Hezbollah rocket attack.

“We thought it important to hit a significant target set to send a very clear message to them about how serious we take American lives,” Schenker told reporters.

“We don’t want an escalation here, we want a de-escalation,” he added, however.

A senior US State Department official on Monday accused Iraqi authorities of having failed to “protect” US interests.

“We have warned the Iraqi government many times, and we’ve shared information with them to try to work with them to carry out their responsibility to protect us as their invited guests,” the official told reporters in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He noted that the US military and diplomats are in the country “upon the invitation of the Iraqi government. So it’s their responsibility and duty to protect us. And they have not taken the appropriate steps to do so.”

Multiple attacks have in recent weeks targeted Iraq bases where Americans are present. The United States has blamed the attacks on pro-Iran factions.

US soldiers load Christmas gifts onto a helicopter in Irbil, Iraq, bound for American bases in eastern Syria, on December 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Farid Abdul-Wahid)

“We have frequent and robust exchanges with the Iraqi government about these threats,” the State Department official said. “We absolutely told them that we were going to be taking action against” Friday’s attack.

Abdel Mahdi said he had been forewarned by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the US would carry out the attacks.

“He told me the United States would strike Kataeb Hezbollah and I told him it would be a very dangerous act that could lead to an escalation,” Abdel Mahdi said.

Tensions have soared between the United States and Iran since Washington pulled out of a multilateral nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and imposed crippling sanctions.

Iraqi leaders fear their country could become a battleground between Tehran and Washington.

The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is highly revered by Iraq’s Shiite majority, denounced the airstrikes.

“The authorities must prevent Iraq being used as a place for the settling of accounts,” it said in reference to US-Iran tensions.

A fighter on an armored vehicle belonging to the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah Brigade waves a v-sign as he patrols east of Ramadi, Iraq, on May 27, 2015. (AP/File)

Pro-Iran factions angry

US sources say pro-Iran armed factions now pose a greater threat than the Islamic State group, whose rise saw the US freshly deploy troops on Iraqi soil.

Sunday night’s strikes revived calls from Iraq and beyond for US troops to leave.

Kataeb Hezbollah demanded the “withdrawal of the American enemy,” a call echoed by the pro-Iran groups Badr and Assaib Ahl al-Haq — whose leaders were recently hit with US sanctions.

“The American military presence has become a burden for the Iraqi state and a source of threat against our forces. It is therefore imperative for all of us to do everything to expel them by all legitimate means,” the Assaib Ahl al-Haq said.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the US had “shown its firm support for terrorism and its neglect for the independence and sovereignty of countries” by carrying out the attacks.

Russia called for restraint saying the “exchange of strikes” in Iraq were “unacceptable.”

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