Iraq condemns US air strikes on Iran-backed militias as a 'breach of sovereignty'

Assaults killing at least eight are a response to attacks on Iraqi bases where American troops are stationed

Members of Kataib Hezbollah attend the funeral of one of its fighters, Fadel Al Maksusi, on Tuesday. AFP
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The government in Baghdad on Wednesday denounced the latest US air strikes on Iran-backed militias that killed at least eight militants, describing them as a “breach of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Militia group Kataib Hezbollah said in a statement on social media that eight of its members were killed in a strike on its base in Jurf Al Sakhar, a town south of Baghdad also known as Jurf Al Nasr, early on Wednesday.

US aircraft also struck another Kataib Hezbollah operations centre in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials told The National.

There was no word on casualties from the strike in Anbar province, where hard-line militias have taken control of a border crossing into Syria, farmland and other infrastructure.

The US strikes against militia sites in Iraq are in response to attacks on Iraqi bases and others in Syria where American troops are stationed, which have increased alongside Israel's operations against Hamas in Gaza.

“The US Central Command forces conducted discrete, precision strikes against two facilities in Iraq," Centcom said in a statement on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

“The strikes were in direct response to the attacks against US and coalition forces by Iran and Iran-backed groups."

One of these attacks was on November 21, “which involved use of close-range ballistic missiles”, it said.

Late on Monday, US forces were attacked at Ain Al Asad airbase west of Baghdad and a US military AC-130 plane responded a few hours later, killing one Iran-backed militant linked to Kataib Hezbollah.

Iraq condemns 'breach of sovereignty'

Iraqi government spokesman Basim Al Awadi said the latest US strikes were a “dangerous escalation and a breach of Iraqi sovereignty”.

“We strongly condemn the attack on Jurf Al Nasr as a clear violation of sovereignty and an attempt to destabilise the security situation,” Mr Al Awadi added, saying the attack was carried out without the prior knowledge of the Iraqi government.

“The Iraqi government is exclusively responsible for law enforcement and accountability,” he added in a statement.

Iraq's statement said the strikes were a "clear overstepping” of the task of the US-led International Coalition, which is supporting Iraqi forces with training and advice.

But it also contained veiled criticism of the militias, warning that the government “is the only party that is constitutionally responsible for drawing and implementing policies and maintaining security and stability".

"Any armed actions outside the military institution are deemed illegal and a threat to the national interests,” it warned.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, who is also Iraq's Commander-in-Chief, ordered the security forces to “enforce the law and prevent any party from compromising the country’s security and stability”, the statement added.

Kataib Hezbollah is a brigade in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups consisting primarily of powerful Iran-backed militias.

Ostensibly, the government supervises the body but in reality official security forces such as the army and police have limited control over them.

Rising violence reaches contested town

The attacks are the first by the US inside Iraq since the Israel-Gaza war began. Previously, the US had only conducted retaliatory air strikes against militia sites in Syria.

A US Department of Defence official told The National American troops have come under 68 attacks since last October 7, with 33 of them in Iraq and the rest in Syria.

The latest were on Tuesday when militants fired numerous rockets near Shuddadi base in Syria and one-way drones at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq.

In hitting Jurf Al Sakhar, the latest strikes targeted one of the former strongholds of Sunni militant groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS after the US-led invasion of 2003.

Jurf Al Sakhar loosely means “rocky bank” due to its location on a bend in the Euphrates, but was renamed Jurf Al Nasr, or Victory Bank, by Iraqi security forces in 2014.

It came under the control of the insurgents in June 2014, but they were driven out a few months later by security forces in an extremely destructive battle.

Thousands of Sunnis who fled the town have been unable to return because it is under the control of Iran-backed Shiite militias, such as Kataib Hezbollah.

Human rights groups have condemned what they say is the collective punishment of civilians permanently expelled from the town.

The area has been described as off-limits for regular security forces, including the army, while Sunni politicians have repeatedly called for their community to be allowed to return.

Ellie Sennett reported from Washington DC.

Updated: November 23, 2023, 12:05 PM