US Says Strikes on Militia in Iraq Sent Clear Warning to Iran

December 30, 2019 Updated: December 30, 2019
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The U.S. airstrikes on five bases in Iraq and Syria used by an Iranian-backed terrorist group sent a warning to Tehran that President Donald Trump’s patience has its limits.

“One of the things that we want to emphasize is that this was a defensive action that was designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s Iran envoy, said in a telephone briefing Monday. “We’re also working on the mission set of restoring deterrence against Iranian aggression.”

Sunday’s rare direct strike on an Iranian proxy came at an especially tense time and held the potential for escalation. The United States and Iran are locked in a standoff over the Trump administration’s crippling economic offensive against Tehran—meant to force it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal Washington has abandoned—and the Islamic regime’s suspected reprisals.

Rocket assaults on or near Iraqi installations that host American troops and personnel have occurred since the fall, and Pentagon officials have expressed increasing concern about Iranian involvement. An American contractor was killed in such an attack on Friday, and several U.S. service personnel were wounded.

‘Pretty Darn Patient’

“They took a strike at an American facility,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Monday on “Fox and Friends.” “President Trump’s been pretty darn patient, and he’s made clear at the same time that when Americans’ lives were at risk we would respond, and that’s what the Department of Defense did yesterday.”

A combination of images depicts what the U.S. military says are bases of the Kataib Hezbollah militia group that were struck by U.S. forces, in the city of Al-Qa'im
A combination of images depicts what the U.S. military says are bases of the Kataib Hezbollah militia group that were struck by U.S. forces, in the city of Al-Qa’im, Iraq, on Dec. 29, 2019. (U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via Reuters)

Iraq has the potential to be a military flashpoint between the United States and Iran. U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq to fight ISIS terrorists amid thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias controlled by officials in Baghdad sympathetic to Tehran.

Iran condemned the attack on the Kata’ib Hezbollah terrorist group’s bases as “an aggression against Iraqi soil and a clear example of terrorism,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported, quoting Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Vowing revenge, Kata’ib Hezbollah said in a statement, “Let Trump know that he will pay dearly in Iraq and the countries where his criminal forces are present.”

Iraq’s parliament speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi, also denounced the raid as a violation of his country’s sovereignty, even as he urged all parties to display restraint and stressed a commitment to protect “multinational forces who are on the ground at the invitation” of the Iraqi government. The coalition was deployed in 2014 to crush ISIS and roll back its conquests in Iraq and Syria.

Kata’ib Hezbollah’s parent group reported that 25 fighters were killed and 51 were wounded. The group nominally falls under the command of the Iraqi armed forces and fought ISIS alongside the Iraqi army and the U.S.-led coalition. But it has also been armed by Iran and is assisting it in ferrying arms to Syria, where it is propping up President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.

There has been no reaction from Syria to the strikes.

Trump Briefed

Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper flew to Florida on Sunday to brief Trump on activities of the previous three days. Attacks on bases used by Operation Inherent Resolve coalition forces in Iraq have threatened American forces, and have been going on for weeks.

Esper said F-15 jets attacked five targets, three in western Iraq and two in eastern Syria that were either command-control facilities or weapons caches. “The strikes were successful, the pilots and aircraft returned back to base safely,” he said.

Targets included weapon storage facilities and command and control locations.

Esper didn’t rule out additional actions in the region.

“We will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter other bad behavior from militia groups,” he said. Neither official took questions.

By Glen Carey and Justin Sink