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Officials: US strikes Iran-backed militias in response to Iraq base attack

This photo released by the government-affiliated Media Security Cell on Thursday, March 12, 2020, shows a rocket-rigged truck launcher after a rocket attack on Camp Taji, a few miles north of Baghdad, in Rashidiya, Iraq.

MEDIA SECURITY CELL

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 12, 2020

U.S. warplanes struck Iran-backed militias in Iraq early Friday in response to a rocket attack that killed two Americans and a British soldier this week, a U.S. defense official said.

The strikes targeted five storage facilities used by the Shiite militia Kataeb Hezbollah to house weapons used against U.S. and coalition forces, Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement on Twitter.

“These strikes were defensive, proportional, & in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups who continue to attack bases hosting OIR coalition forces,” she said, using an acronym for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition helping Iraqi and Syrian forces fight the Islamic State group.

The American strikes hit sites south of Baghdad in the areas of Jurf al-Nasr, Musayib, Najaf and Alexandria, the Iraqi government’s security media cell said on social media. The sites were bases of the Popular Mobilization Forces — an umbrella organization militia groups that form part of the Iraqi security forces — and the Emergency Response Division and 19th Army commandos, it said.

The air raids mark a resurgence in U.S.-Iran tensions that seized the region earlier this year and led the U.S. to rapidly deploy thousands more troops to the Middle East in an effort to bolster security there. In recent weeks, some of those troops began returning home.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned that the U.S. would do what it must to provide security for Americans in the region, where Iranian proxies have also been blamed for attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities and tankers in the Persian Gulf.

“The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” Esper said. “As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”

The rocket attack on Wednesday struck Camp Taji, a base about 17 miles north of Baghdad that houses coalition forces training Iraqis to battle the Islamic State group. Iraqi forces recovered a flatbed truck installed with a 36-tube rocket launcher. Three of the projectiles had not been fired.

At least 18 107 mm Katyusha rockets hit the base, killing British Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon, 26, who served as a combat medic, and two unidentified American service members, according to military officials. Fourteen other coalition troops were wounded, the Pentagon said.

The U.S. blamed Kataeb Hezbollah for the attack, which bore some similarities to an attack in Qayara in November, as well as December's fatal attack in Kirkuk, which killed an American contractor. Both attacks used civilian trucks outfitted with improvised launchers.

In the wake of this week’s deadly strike in Taji, the Iraqi government warned that the U.S. was in the country only to train security forces and fight ISIS, but not other parties — an apparent reference to the Iranian proxies the U.S. has blamed for a series of rocket attacks on bases housing coalition troops in Iraq since last summer.

U.S. retaliatory strikes after the rocket attack in Kirkuk in December kicked off a series of back-and-forth attacks between Iran or its proxies and the U.S., leading to a drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of Tehran’s top generals, during a visit to Baghdad. Iran struck back, launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles that hit bases housing U.S. troops in northern and western Iraq, causing more than 100 traumatic brain injuries among the Americans.

Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers with ties to Iran pushed the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi to expel U.S. forces from the country. The U.S. had temporarily halted its training and support of Iraqi anti-ISIS operations but those activities have since resumed.

The U.S. strikes Friday were meant to degrade the Shiite militia group’s ability to strike U.S. and coalition forces, the Pentagon said in a statement.

U.S. officials had discussed with senior Iraqi officials DOD’s commitment to protecting coalition service members and preventing militia attacks on them, the statement said.

“These terror groups must cease their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces or face consequences at a time and place of our choosing,” it said.

garland.chad@stripes.com

Twitter: @chadgarland