Concern of reprisals after deadly US airstrikes against Iranian proxy

Airstrikes against militia targets killed over 25, come in retaliation for rocket barrage that killed US civilian contractor.

Iraqi people burn a U.S. flag and a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump in a protest after an airstrike at the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah militia group in Qaim, in Kirkuk, Iraq, December 30, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)
Iraqi people burn a U.S. flag and a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump in a protest after an airstrike at the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah militia group in Qaim, in Kirkuk, Iraq, December 30, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)
The US military is concerned over reprisals for a series of American airstrikes against an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia which killed over 25 people on Sunday.
The strikes by American F-15 fighter jets were carried out against five locations belonging to the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, and came two days after a barrage of over 30 rockets were fired towards the K1 Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, killing a US civilian contractor and wounded dozens of Iraqi and American troops.
A Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) statement said that the group’s 45th Brigade was struck near the border town of al-Qaim in Iraq’s Western Anbar province near the border with Syria.
Three targets were in Iraq and two in Syria, and included weapons depots and command posts. The American military said that the targets struck were not only storage and command and control locations but also used to “plan and execute attacks.”
Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and dozens more wounded in the strikes against Kataib Hezbollah, a key militia group under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups mostly consisting of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias that was formally integrated into Iraq’s armed forces.
The PMU bolstered Iraq’s security forces during their battle to retake a third of the country from Islamic State, helping secure victory against the militants and were later formally integrated into Iraq’s official security structure and also wield large political influence.
According to Reuters, US military officials speaking on condition of anonymity said they had “little doubt” that Kataib Hezbollah would retaliate for the strikes.
“The blood of the martyrs will not be in vain, and our response will be very tough on the American forces in Iraq,” said senior PMU commander and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis.
Iran described the airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah “as a clear instance of terrorism,” which proved American lies against fighting the Islamic State group, since the proxy group was heavily involved in the fight against the jihadist group.
“By these attacks, the US has shown its firm support for terrorism and lack of attention to the countries’ independence and sovereignty, and it should account for consequences of its illegal act,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi said on Monday.
Calling on the US to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Mousavi said America should stop interference in the country’s internal affairs, and that US forces in the region “create insecurity, tension and crisis.”
The Iranian proxy group vowed to exact revenge for the “evil American aggression” and warned that its “battle with America and its mercenaries is now open to all possibilities. We have no alternative today other than confrontation, and there is nothing that will prevent us from responding to this crime.”
While this is the first time the US has struck Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, those groups have attacked US forces for many years, especially between 2006 and 2008.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman described the strikes as “precision defensive strikes” against the group that “will degrade” its ability to carry out future attacks against coalition forces.
A senior State Department official called the strike a “defense action to defend American citizens in Iraq” that is “also aimed at deterring Iran.”
“We are not going to let Iran get away with using proxy forces to attack American interests. We will hold Iran accountable,” the source said.
The US has taken issue with Tehran’s ability to expand its foreign policy and finance terrorist groups despite the nuclear deal, which the US under President Donald Trump left, and its latest action is an attempt to restore deterrence.
In the past two months, Iran-backed terrorists have attacked coalition force bases 11 times.
As for whether the airstrike marks a shift in US policy in the region, the official said: “We don’t preview future military action.” However, he noted that the US has “enhanced its force posture,” moved 14,000 troops to the area since May, and enhanced intelligence and reconnaissance assets, disrupting many attacks planned by Iran.
In a statement on Sunday, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called the strikes a “dangerous escalation that threaten[s] the security of Iraq and the region.”
According to Abdul Mahdi, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called him close to 30 minutes before to inform him of the coming strikes. During the call, Abdul Mahdi demanded that Esper call off the strikes, as they would lead to a further escalation.
Israel meanwhile praised the US strikes against the Iranian proxy group.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to congratulate him for “the important American action against Iran and its affiliates in the region.”
A senior government source said Israel welcomes the strikes on pro-Iran forces but is waiting to see if there will be a shift in American policy or if this is an isolated event.
Deputy Defense Minister Avi Dichter said on Twitter he hopes the rules of the game have changed following the strikes.
“The United States was first burned down by the downing of the US drone over international waters, and then the attack in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The lack of response to the events was a catalyst, and this time as soon as a US citizen was killed, the US decided to respond. I hope the rules of the game have changed.”
Foreign Minister Israel Katz tweeted that they were a “turning point in the regional response to Iran and its proxies,” stressing that “If Iran fails to understand the power of the US, they will be making a big mistake.”
Meanwhile, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin was more cautious and said Israel must now be more careful about its own airstrikes in Iraq.
Yadlin, also the executive director of INSS, said the US decision to directly engage Iran and its proxies with kinetic force was a major change in which the US set down a redline for Iran that it will respond with military force if the Islamic republic kills Americans. Yadlin’s point was that Israel had more freedom of action in Iraq against Iranians as long as the US was not acting.
However, now that the US is taking action against Iran, Israel must be more careful about such airstrikes in Iraq and coordinate them more closely with the overall US strategy. Yadlin noted the risk that Iraq could push US forces out of the country, and that Israel does not want to be the cause of such a scenario.
“The US is dragged from fighting ISIS with Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria to confront them there,” he said. “The message is when you Iranians cross our redline [killing Americans], our ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, previously confined to diplomatic and economic realms, can go kinetic.”
Yadlin added that Israel “needed to remain outside of the confrontation and to be careful about actions against Iranian footprints in Iraq that are uncoordinated with the US.”
At the same time, he said the US’s decision to engage Iranian militias directly on a limited basis did not mean it could be counted on to act militarily on behalf of Israel wherever Jerusalem might desire. To that extent, he advocated Israel maintaining preparedness to take whatever military action might be necessary to defend Israeli interests.
Reuters contributed to this report.