US strikes sites used by Iran-backed forces in Iraq

Paramilitary bases hit after drone attack wounded three US personnel in northern Iraq on Monday

A fighter with the Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah militia group inspects the site of a US air strike in Hilla, Iraq. Reuters
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The US military carried out strikes on three sites used by Iran-backed forces in Iraq on Monday after an attack wounded three American personnel the previous day, drawing a protest from the Iraqi government.

The strikes hit bases of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-linked paramilitary organisation, in the cities of Hilla, Juraf Al Sakhar and Suwaira in central Iraq, according to posts on Telegram channels linked to Iran-backed Shiite militias.

The Iraqi government condemned the “targeting of Iraqi military sites by the US” as an “unacceptable infringement to the Iraqi sovereignty”, said Maj Gen Yahya Rasool, a military representative for Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani.

He said one paramilitary member was killed and 18 others wounded, including civilians.

“It is a clear and unconstructive hostile act that doesn't help the long-term joint interests in establishing security and stability, and contradicts the declared desire by the US to enhance relations with Iraq,” Brig Gen Rasool said.

He warned that “this step negatively affects bilateral relations between the two countries and complicates avenues for reaching understandings through mutual dialogue to end the presence of the [US-led] International Coalition” against ISIS.

A video on social media showed the site in Hilla littered with debris and a car in flames as firefighters battled to put out fire. A dormitory of the city's university nearby was damaged.

Another video showed several wounded men on stretchers receiving treatment.

Washington has repeatedly targeted sites used by Iran and its proxy forces in Iraq and Syria in response to dozens of attacks on American and allied forces in the region since the October 7 outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

“US military forces conducted necessary and proportionate strikes on three facilities used by Kataeb Hezbollah and affiliated groups in Iraq,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

“These precision strikes are a response to a series of attacks against US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias, including an attack by Iran-affiliated Kataeb Hezbollah and affiliated groups on Erbil Air Base earlier today,” he said.

Three US military personnel were wounded, one critically, in the drone attack, US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.

It came hours after Iran announced that a commander in its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brig Gen Razi Mousavi, had been killed in a suspected Israeli strike in Syria.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the attack, which was carried out with a one-way attack drone, and directed the strikes in a call with Mr Austin and other national security officials after ordering the Defence Department to prepare a response, Ms Watson said.

Mr Biden “places no higher priority than the protection of American personnel serving in harm's way”.

“The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing should these attacks continue,” she added.

The drone attack was claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose formation of armed groups affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a coalition of former paramilitaries that are now integrated into Iraq's regular armed forces.

Meanwhile, a US defence official confirmed on Tuesday that several rockets had been launched against US and coalition forces at Patrol Base Shaddadi in Syria.

The official told The National that there were “no casualties and no damage to infrastructure”.

That brings total attacks against US forces to at least 105 since October 17, the official added, including 49 in Iraq and 56 in Syria.

Most of these have been claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which opposes US support for Israel in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The latest round of the Israel-Hamas conflict began when the Palestinian militant group carried out a shock cross-border attack from Gaza on October 7 that killed about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Following the attack, the US rushed military aid to Israel, which has carried out a relentless campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 20,600 people, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The death toll has sparked widespread anger in the Middle East and provided an impetus for attacks on American troops by forces opposed to their presence in the region.

There are roughly 2,500 American troops in Iraq and some 900 in Syria as part of efforts to prevent a resurgence of ISIS.

The extremist militant group once held significant territory in both countries but was pushed back by local ground forces supported by international air strikes in a bloody, multiyear conflict.

Updated: December 26, 2023, 3:09 PM