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Tensions rise after US launches retaliatory airstrikes on Iran-backed fighters in Iraq

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley briefs the media at the Pentagon, Washington D.C., Dec. 20, 2019. (DoD photo by Marine Sgt. Warren Smith)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. air strikes that killed several members of a pro-Iranian militia group in Iraq have heightened tensions in the region, with Baghdad denouncing the attack as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and Tehran warning President Donald Trump against taking “dangerous actions.”

The United States says the overnight strikes were in retaliation for a March 11 rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in which two U.S. troops and one British soldier were killed.

Iraqi President Barham Salih on March 13 condemned the U.S. attack, warning that the country could slip into “chaos” and become a “failed state.”

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said it would summon both the U.S. and British ambassadors to Baghdad over the strikes, in which the Iraqi military said five members of the country’s security forces and one civilian were killed.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi said in a statement that Trump should “reconsider the presence and behavior of his troops in the area” instead of making “dangerous actions and baseless accusations.”

Hours earlier, the U.S. Defense Department said its strikes targeted five weapons depots used by the Kataib Hezbollah militia, including facilities housing arms used in past attacks on U.S.-led coalition troops.

The attack was “defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups,” according to the Pentagon.

One U.S. official was quoted as saying the strikes were a joint U.S.-British operation.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the response to the attack on coalition forces as “swift, decisive, and proportionate” and warned that anyone seeking to harm those forces could expect a “strong response.”

The statement by Iraq’s military said the “aggression” against its armed forces occurred in the areas of Jurf al-Sakher, Al-Musayib, Najaf, and Al-Iskandariya on the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, emergency regiments, and commandos of the 9th division of the Iraqi Army.

It said that in addition to the three soldiers, two police officers, and one civilian killed, 12 people were wounded — four soldiers, two policemen, one civilian, and five militiamen.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper has blamed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia groups for the deadly rocket attack on the coalition at the Camp Taji military base, located less than 30 kilometers north of Baghdad.

No one claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, but a U.S. commander said Kataib Hezbollah was likely to have fired the rockets.

“The Iranian proxy group Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq,” Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie told a U.S. Senate committee.

The United States has accused Iran-backed militias of similar attacks on Iraqi bases hosting coalition forces over the past year.

In December, Washington blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a strike that killed a U.S. contractor and triggered a round of violence that led Trump to order the killing of a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad the following month.

In retaliation, an Iranian ballistic missile strike on an Iraqi air base left some 110 U.S. troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

Also on March 12, the U.S.-led coalition denied carrying out air strikes on Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen in eastern Syria.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 26 people were killed in the attack, which came hours after rocket strikes on Camp Taji.