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Deadly US Strikes Target Pro-Iran Militia in Iraq, Syria
Kata'ib Hizbullah fighters march in Baghdad, May 31, 2019. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Deadly US Strikes Target Pro-Iran Militia in Iraq, Syria

Five airstrikes on Kata’ib Hizbullah are first declared US military operations against Iraq’s Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces

In a significant escalation, the US military said that it launched five airstrikes on Sunday night in Iraq and Syria targeting the Iranian-linked paramilitary Kata’ib Hizbullah (KH), in response to an attack that killed a US civilian contractor two days earlier.

Trump administration officials have repeatedly warned that any significant attacks on US personnel in Iraq would elicit a strong response.

“US forces have conducted precision defensive strikes against five KH facilities in Iraq and Syria that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces,” the Pentagon said in a statement issued shortly after the first reports of airstrikes.

Iraqi government sources told Reuters that at least 25 militia fighters were killed, including four commanders, and 55 were wounded.

KH is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a loose collection of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries that played an instrumental role in defeating Islamic State in Iraq. Many have close financial, military, political, and command ties with Iran, including KH. Its fighters have also been used in combat in Syria.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday that the airstrikes on KH targets show the United States’ “support for terrorism” and that Washington would have to deal with the “consequences” of its actions.

“A significant aspect of the airstrikes is that they are the first declared military operations by the US against a component of Iraq’s Iranian-backed PMF since this umbrella organization came into existence,” geopolitical analyst Ceng Sagnic told The Media Line.

The Pentagon explicitly characterized Sunday’s strikes as a response to a rocket attack on Friday night on the K1 base northwest of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. One US contractor was killed and four US service members were wounded, along with several members of the Iraqi security forces.

“KH has a strong linkage with Iran’s Quds Force and has repeatedly received lethal aid and other support from Iran that it has used to attack [Operation Inherent Resolve] coalition forces,” the Pentagon statement said, using the official name for the international campaign to counter Islamic State.

Rocket attacks on US bases have caused significant concern for US officials and were cited as a motivating factor in the 2018 decision to close the US Consulate in Basra and subsequent drawdowns in personnel at the US Embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil this year.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iranian leaders that “any attacks by them, or their proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive US response.”

“The US is likely to have assessed the need to show a response and declare it [publicly] this time as attacks on coalition bases at critical times have begun to become a norm,” Sagnic said, adding that the choice of KH was likely due to the fact that the US has already designated it as a terrorist organization.

Constraining US actions up until this point was the security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, which stipulated that any airstrikes conducted on Iraqi territory would have to be approved by the prime minister’s office.

“Certainly, the optics do not look good. This is especially true given that the US leadership contacted the Iraqi government and informed them half an hour before the attack that they would go through with it,” Muhammad Al-Waeli, a Ph.D. candidate in management focusing on leadership and reform in Iraq, told The Media Line.

Complicating matters is that the Iraqi government is experiencing its biggest political crisis in years, leaving it distracted with domestic concerns.

Protesters have flooded the streets of Baghdad and the majority Shi’ite provinces in the southern part of the country since the beginning of October. Nearly 500 people have been killed and an estimated 17,000 have been wounded in the unrest.

A major unifying theme among the demonstrators is that that the government be free from foreign interference, primarily from Iran and the US.

“It is important for everyone in Iraq to refuse any further escalation, for the sake of achieving real reform,” Al-Waeli said.

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