After the U.S. launched a series of airstrikes inside Iraq and Syria on an Iranian-backed militia, the Iraqi government has condemned the strikes as an attack on its sovereignty and said it would summon the U.S. ambassador. The U.S. launched the attack following a rocket strike Friday, attributed to the Kataeb Hezbollah militia, that killed a U.S. military contractor working with Iraqi and U.S. forces.
The KH militia, which is calling for retaliation, says that at least 25 of its fighters were killed in the strikes and dozens more injured.
"We stress that Iraq is an independent country, and its internal security takes priority, and serious attention, and will not be allowed to become a battlefield, or a route for launching attacks," Iraq's Foreign Ministry said in a statement about what it planned to tell the U.S. ambassador.
It added that Iraq planned to discuss the future presence in Iraq of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS.
KH and more than two dozen other Iranian-backed militias have a complicated position within Iraq. The paramilitary has fought against ISIS and is formally part of Iraq's security forces — though U.S. officials have raised concerns about whether the Iraqi government actually has control over it and other Iranian-backed groups.
A U.S. State Department official said the latest military action was "designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq, but it is also aimed at deterring Iran."
As NPR's Tom Bowman reported, this militia "has been for months now firing mortars and rockets at U.S. forces at locations throughout Iraq." The U.S. government blames it for the recent attack on an Iraqi base near the city of Kirkuk in which a U.S. contractor was killed. The attack on the base used by U.S. and Iraqi forces, which involved more than 30 rockets, also injured four U.S. service members and two Iraqi troops, according to the Defense Department.
The U.S. military says it launched "precision defensive strikes" against three of the militia's facilities in Iraq and two in Syria. Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant to the secretary of defense, said in a statement that the locations "included weapon storage facilities and command and control locations that KH uses to plan and execute attacks on [Operation Inherent Resolve] coalition forces." Some of these strikes led to large secondary explosions, as Bowman reported.
Hoffman stressed that KH has a strong link to Iran's elite Quds Force and said it has received weapons and other support from Iran that it turned on coalition forces.
"The U.S. and its coalition partners fully respect Iraqi sovereignty, and support a strong and independent Iraq," Hoffman stated. "The U.S., however, will not be deterred from exercising its right of self-defense."
"Our battle with America and its mercenaries is now open to all possibilities," KH said in a statement after the strikes, according to The Associated Press. "We have no alternative today other than confrontation and there is nothing that will prevent us from responding to this crime."
Previous KH strikes had not caused serious injuries. But they were enough to worry U.S. officials. In May, as Bowman reported, "Secretary Mike Pompeo abruptly canceled a trip to Germany and flew to Baghdad because, I'm told, intelligence showed the possibility of a large attack on U.S. forces, presumably by these militias." That threat did not materialize at the time.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's office said in a statement that he received a call from U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper shortly before the airstrikes and asked for them to be called off. Abdul-Mahdi decried the strikes as a unilateral act by the U.S.-led coalition that is considered a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.
A State Department official told reporters that the U.S. is not worried about the potential consequences of the strikes. The official added that it's the Iraqi government's "responsibility and duty to protect us, and they have not taken the appropriate steps to do so." The State Department reports that there have been 11 attacks on Iraqi bases that host coalition forces in the last two months. "This obviously is a campaign," the official said.
The Iranian Embassy also published a statement in Iraqi local media, calling the strikes against militias a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
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