US airstrikes target Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria

Sky News Arabia reported just before 8 in evening Iraqi time that a bomb struck near the city of Al-Qaim in Iraq near the Syrian border.

THE BORDER between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Iran. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE BORDER between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Iran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Sunday evening in Iraq US forces bombed a headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi-based Shi’ite militia, in response to an attack that killed a US contractor on Friday.
US airstrikes targeted at least five locations of the Iraqi-based militia Kataib Hezbollah. The Pentagon says three targets were in Iraq and two in Syria. Kataib Hezbollah is closely linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The targets includes weapons depots and command posts according to Reuters and a US military statement. The attack may have involved drones, according to reports, and are characterized as “defensive strikes,” in retaliation for the attack on K-1 on Friday and other attacks on bases with US forces in Iraq. The Friday attack killed a US contractor and wounded four soldiers. Several members of Kataib Hezbollah were killed and wounded.
Sky News Arabia reported just before 8 in evening Iraqi time that a bomb struck near the city of Al-Qaim in Iraq near the Syrian border. US forces are on alert according to the report. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have launched  more than a dozen attacks on bases where US forces are located. US forces in Iraq are part of the anti-ISIS Coalition. The pro-Iranian militias are part of Iraqi Security Forces called the Popular Mobilization Units.
Kataib Hezbollah’s leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was sanctioned by the US in 2009. His group has bases in Syria as well. One of those bases in Albukamal was hit in an airstrike in June 2018. His group has threatened the US in the past and he works closely with IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Assistant Secretary of Defense Jonathan Hoffman said that the attack was in response to “repeated Kataib Hezbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve coalition forces.” His statement ssaid that the US conducted “precision defensive strikes against five KH facilities in Iraq and Syria that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks.” The US says that the areas it struck were not only storage and command and control locations but also used to “plan and execute attacks.” The US has expressed concern in the past about pro-Iranian militias targeting Coalition forces in Syria.
Iraq is in the midst of a political crises after months off rioting. The Iranian-backed militias are accused of killing more than 500 protesters. The US designated Qais Khazali, head of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, as a terrorist earlier this month and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Iran that any attacks on US forces or allies will be met with a response.
The US has opposed the increasing role of the Popular Mobilization Forces and their affiliated militias. In 2017 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the militias should go home now that the war on ISIS was over. The PMU had been created to help Iraq fight ISIS. However Iraq’s Prime Minister at the time said the militias were the hope of the future of Iraq. In July and August 2019 the militias accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes against their munitions facilities. In December reports emerged that Iran is moving ballistic missiles to Iraq.
The US attack is  the first time the US has struck Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. Iranian-backed groups have attacked US forces for many years, especially between 2006 and 2008. Qais Khazali, leader of the AAH militia, was imprisoned by the US at Camp Cropper in 2007 for attacks. These militias work closely with Iran and also with Hezbollah in Lebanon. They have supported the Assad regime in Syria. Khazali went to Lebanon in 2017 and threatened Israel.
Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, one of the PMU’s largest militias, has warned Israel in the past and blamed Israel for attacks in Iraq. He has also warned that a US-Iran war could “burn” Iraq. Amiri, Muhandis and Khazali are all key figures today in Iraq’s parliament and seek to appoint Iraq’s next Prime Minister. Iraqi President Barham Saleh has refused their recent choices and threatened to resign, but the pro-Iranian block in parliament has so many seats it believes it can push through whoever it wants. In this context the rising attacks on US forces and harassing fire against bases where the US forces are located is a message by the militias and Iran of Tehran’s strength in Iraq. Even the protesters, who are mostly Shi’ite, have been protesting against Iran’s overbearing power in Iraq.
The airstrikes bring into stark contrast the dispute between Iraqi-based pro-Iranian groups and US policy in the Middle East. The US says that it will not be stopped from exercising its right of self-defense. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has told Iraq’s leadership that he is committed to see the Kataib Hezbollah attack “cease once and for all.” Iraq’s former Prime Minister assured him they would, but then he resigned. The US says that “Iran and Kataib Hezbollah proxy forces must cease their attacks on US and coalition forces and respect Iraq’s sovereignty to prevent additional defensive actions by US forces.”