US bombs Iran-backed Iraqi militia in response to deadly rocket attack
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US bombs Iran-backed Iraqi militia in response to deadly rocket attack

British army also takes part in strikes on Kataeb Hezbollah weapons facility day after missiles fired at base kill 3 troops

Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction at their headquarters in the aftermath of a US airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, December 30, 2019. (AP)
Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction at their headquarters in the aftermath of a US airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, December 30, 2019. (AP)

WASHINGTON — The US launched airstrikes Thursday in Iraq, targeting the Iranian-backed Shia militia members believed responsible for the rocket attack that killed and wounded American and British troops at a base north of Baghdad, the Pentagon said..

US officials said multiple strikes by US fighter jets hit five locations and mainly targeted Kataeb Hezbollah weapons facilities inside Iraq. A Defense Department statement said the strikes targeted five weapons storage facilities “to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks.”

The strikes marked a rapid escalation in tensions with Tehran and its proxy groups in Iraq, just two months after Iran carried out a massive ballistic missile attack against American troops at a base in Iraq. They came just hours after top US defense leaders threatened retaliation for the Wednesday rocket attack, making clear that they knew who did it and that the attackers would be held accountable.

“The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said. “As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”

A Marine carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (AP/Steve Ruark)

The Pentagon statement said the facilities hit in the precision strikes were used to store weapons used to target the US and coalition forces. It called the counterattack “defensive, proportional and in direct response to the threat” posed by the Iranian-backed Shia militia groups.

US officials said the locations of the strikes were largely around the Baghdad region. One US official said there were two strikes at Jurf al-Sakher, one in Karbala, one at Al-Musayib, and one at Arab Nawar Ahmad. The official said the US expected casualties would be lower than 50, and said the main effort was to hit the weapons.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because some details about the operations had not yet been made public.

An official with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units told The Associated Press that two Iraqi federal police personnel were killed in Jurf al-Sakher. An Iraqi military statement said the aerial “aggression” occurred at 1:15 a.m. in the areas of Jurf al-Sakher, Al-Musayib, Najaf and Alexandria on the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Units, emergency regiments and commandos of the 9th division of the Iraqi army.

Esper told reporters at the Pentagon earlier Thursday that President Donald Trump had given him the authority to take whatever action he deemed necessary.

“We’re going to take this one step at a time, but we’ve got to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Esper said. “You don’t get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the budget, March 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

At the White House, Trump had also hinted that a US counterpunch could be coming, telling reporters, “We’ll see what the response is.” And Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters the US knows ”with a high degree of certainty” who launched the attack.

On Capitol Hill earlier in the day, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top US commander for the Middle East, told senators the deaths of US and coalition troops created a “red line” for the US, but said he didn’t think Iran has “a good understanding of where our red line is.”

Asked if any counterattack could include a strike inside Iran, Esper said, “We are focused on the group that we believe perpetrated this in Iraq.”

Two US troops and one British service member were killed and 14 other personnel were wounded when 18 rockets hit the base Wednesday. The US military said the 107 mm Katyusha rockets were fired from a truck launcher that was found by Iraqi security forces near the base after the attack.

US officials have not publicly said what group they believe launched the rocket attack, but Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia militia group, was the likely perpetrator. And the US strikes, which came in the middle of the night in Iraq, targeted that group.

Kataeb Hezbollah was responsible for a late December rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a US contractor, prompting American military strikes in response.

A burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, in which Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed January 3, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)

That in turn led to protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad. They were followed Jan. 3 by a US airstrike that killed Iran’s most powerful military officer, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, of which Kataeb Hezbollah is a member. In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran launched a massive ballistic missile attack on Jan. 8, at al-Asad air base in Iraq, that resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops.

McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning that the killing of Soleimani and the increase in US troops and assets in the region has made clear to Iran that the US will defend its interests there. He said the US has re-established a level of deterrence for state-on-state attacks by Iran.

This photo provided by the US Army, paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division walk as they prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the US Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, January 4, 2020. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/US Army via AP)

However, he said: “What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly again us. That is a far more difficult area to deter.”

On Thursday, Esper and Milley said they spoke with their British counterparts about the attack, but declined to provide details.

Asked why none of the rockets was intercepted, Milley said there are no systems on the base capable of defending against that type of attack.

He also said the 14 injured personnel were a mix of U.S. and allied troops as well as contractors, and they will also be monitored for possible traumatic brain injury in the wake of the blasts.

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