Amid Deadly Protests, Embattled Iraqi Government Condemns US Air Strikes on Iran-Backed Forces

December 30, 2019 Updated: December 30, 2019

BAGHDAD—After resigning last month, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Monday condemned U.S. air strikes on bases of Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.

The U.S. military carried out air strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia, which it considers a terrorist group, in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

At least 25 militia fighters were killed and 55 wounded.

“The prime minister described the American attack on the Iraqi armed forces as an unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences,” his office said. Abdul Mahdi’s resignation came after Iraq’s influential top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, asked Parliament to withdraw its support for the prime minister’s government to address the protesters’ concerns.

At least 450 people have been killed as certain factions of Iraq’s security forces and militias sought to quell the protests. Abdul Mahdi remains in a caretaker capacity.

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The air strikes will force Iraq to reconsider working with the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIS, the Iraqi National Security Council said in a statement.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said it would summon the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad to voice Baghdad’s disapproval.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a call with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that the U.S. strikes “were aimed at deterring Iran,” the State Department said in a statement.

Tensions have risen between Iran and the United States—Iraq’s two main allies—since President Donald Trump pulled out of world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal last year with Tehran and reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. He said any attacks by Tehran or proxies threatening American lives or those of its allies would be “answered with a decisive U.S. response.”

U.S. officials said Washington had displayed patience amid escalating provocations from Iran and its allies, but that it was time to re-establish deterrence against aggression.

“After so many attacks it was important for the president to direct our armed forces to respond in a way that the Iranian regime will understand,” U.S. special representative for Iran Brian Hook said in a news briefing.

Iran denies involvement in attacks on U.S. forces and has condemned the air raids as “terrorism.”

Iranian Influence and Protests

The strikes come as thousands take to the streets in Iraq to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support the outgoing Abdul Mahdi’s government.

They also demand an overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty.

The raids brought threats of reprisal. “Our response will be very tough on the American forces in Iraq,” militia commander and terrorist Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes (Mohandis), said on Sunday.

Mohandes, who has a long history of terrorist and subversive activities, is a senior commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary organizations mostly consisting of Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias that were integrated into Iraq’s armed forces.

In 1983, he led terrorist attacks against the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, and his group has since been accused of extrajudicial killings in western Iraq.

He is also one of Iran’s most powerful allies in Iraq and formerly headed Kataib Hezbollah, which he founded.

His threat was met positively by his Iranian backers.

“Taking revenge and responding to this crime are the natural right of the Iraqi nation and those groups that defend Iraq,” said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which trains some Iraqi militias including Kataib Hezbollah.

Iraqi security sources said U.S. forces in northern Iraq were ramping up security.

The PMF were integrated into Iraq’s security forces during their battle to retake a third of the country from ISIS terrorists.

They were later folded into Iraq’s official security structure and wield major political influence.

He said was told about the air strikes in a phone call with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper hours before the raids and tried to warn the militia.

Further Reactions

Iraq’s Fatih alliance, a political bloc representing the militias, including those backed by Iran, and holding the second largest number of seats in parliament, condemned the air strikes.

Their main rival, populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads parliament’s largest grouping, said he was willing to work with them to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But he also called on them to reign in their militias so as not to provide an excuse for further U.S. attacks.

Al-Sistani, condemned the strikes, and his office also denounced the attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. personnel. He urged Iraqi authorities to prevent such attacks and “ensure Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores and that others do not interfere in its internal affairs.”

Lebanon’s embattled Shi’ite group Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, condemned the air strikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office congratulated Pompeo “on the important operation by the United States against Iran and its proxies in the region.”

Russia, which like Iran and Hezbollah backs President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, said the strikes were unacceptable and counterproductive. The Syrian government also denounced the air strikes.

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed. With editing by Epoch Times staff.