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US launches retaliatory airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq

F-15 Strike Eagles (Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force)
March 12, 2020

U.S. and coalition warplanes have carried out retaliatory strikes on pro-Iranian militias in Iraq believed responsible for a round of deadly rocket attack Wednesday on an Iraqi base housing U.S. and British troops.

The retaliatory airstrikes targeted weapons facilities used by the  pro-Iranian Kata’ib Hezbollah militia to launch its dozens of Katyusha rockets against Camp Taji, Iraq, the Pentagon wrote in a press release Thursday evening. The strikes hit five weapon storage facilities, the Pentagon stated.

“These strikes were defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMG) who continue to attack bases hosting OIR coalition forces,” the Pentagon statement said.

The Pentagon noted the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia’s Wednesday rocket attack killed three people including two U.S. service members and one British service member and wounded 14 others. The attack also several Iraqi Security Forces members.

A video posted to Twitter shortly after the announced strikes purported to show one of the Kata’ib Hezbollah weapons storages being hit by U.S. strikes.

Further claims assessed as many as seven members of the militia were hospitalized following the attack, though it was unclear if those assessments were accurate or if the strikes resulted in further casualties inflicted against the Kata’ib Hezbollah.

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

The recent incident comes just months after another round of escalatory actions between U.S. and pro-Iranian forces. In December of 2019, a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense was killed in a similar rocket attack on Iraq’s K1 military base in Kirkuk. The U.S. responded with a series of air strikes against the Kata’ib Hezbollah militias.

The late December rocket attack and subsequent U.S. retaliatory airstrikes kicked off a series of events which saw many of those same pro-Iranian sympathizers storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. forces bolstered the embassies defenses and carried out another airstrike days later against Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, while he was travelling in Baghdad in the first week of January 2020. U.S. officials, at the time, assessed that Soleimani inspired the embassy attack.

Iran responded to the U.S. strike on Soleimani by launching more than a dozen missiles against two U.S. positions in Iraq on Jan. 8. The strikes did not result in any U.S. deaths and President Donald Trump signalled, at the time, an easing in the tensions between the U.S. and Iran.