Iran Condemns 'Terrorist' U.S. Attacks on Iraq Ally as Militia Leader Vows 'Tough Response'

American forces carried out the strikes against Iranian-backed militia after deadly rocket attack on Iraqi military base, officials said

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U.S. strikes on Kata'ib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq, December 29, 2019.
U.S. strikes on Kata'ib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq, December 29, 2019.Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
Reuters

UPDATE: U.S. ambassador evacuated as Iraqi protesters break into embassy after airstrikes

Both Iran and Iraq on Monday condemned U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria against the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which killed at least 25 militia fighters and wounded over 55 others. 

"U.S. military aggression against Iraqi soil and Iraqi forces is strongly condemned as a clear example of terrorism ... and Iran strongly condemns it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, according to the state news agency IRNA.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Monday condemned the U.S. and said the attack would have consequences. "The prime minister described the American attack on the Iraqi armed forces as an unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences," his office said in a statement.

The government will announce its official position following a meeting of the National Security Council later on Monday, Abdul Mahdi said.

The U.S. military carried out the strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

A top Iraqi militia leader warned of a strong response against U.S. forces in Iraq following air strikes in Iraq and Syria overnight that hit several bases of his Iranian-backed group and killed at least 25 people.

"The blood of the martyrs will not be in vain and our response will be very tough on the American forces in Iraq," senior commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, said late on Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about airstrikes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 29, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about airstrikes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 29, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Mohandes is a senior commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups mostly consisting of Iran-backed Shi'ite militias that was formally integrated into Iraq's armed forces.

Calls for restraint, and some praise 

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also condemned the attacks on Monday. The "illegal practices carried out by some sides" must not be used as a reason to violate Iraq's sovereignty, Sistani's office said in a statement.

"The Iraqi authorities alone are entitled to deal with these practices and take the necessary measures to prevent them. They are called upon do so and to ensure Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores and that others do not interfere in its internal affairs," Sistani said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also responded to the strikes Monday, saying that they were unacceptable and counterproductive, and urged all sides to avoid fueling tensions in the region.

In a first Israeli comment on the developments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, adding that he congratulated him for "America's important actions against Iran and its proxies in the region."

A successful offensive

U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by his top national security advisers following the strikes at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

"We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the briefing with Trump.

Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared briefly in a club ballroom to comment on the airstrikes.

Esper termed the offensive "successful," but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.

"We discussed with him other options that are available," Esper said. "I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran."

Precision defensive strikes

Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three U.S. air strikes in Iraq on Sunday.

At least four local Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the militia group's headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.

The Pentagon said it had targeted three locations of the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militia group in Iraq and two in Syria. The locations included weapons storage facilities and command and control locations the group had used to plan and execute attacks on coalition forces, it said.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strikes were carried out by F-15 fighter jets.

The United States had accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out a strike involving more than 30 rockets on Friday which killed the U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"In response to repeated Kata'ib Hizbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, U.S. forces have conducted precision defensive strikes ... that will degrade KH's ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces" chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and warned Iran that any attacks by Tehran or proxies that harmed Americans or allies would be "answered with a decisive U.S. response."

'Insolent attack'

Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington -Iraq's two main allies - since last year when President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

The air strikes come at a troubled time of protests in Iraq with thousands taking to the streets to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian backers. They also demand an overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed in unrest as security forces have sought to quell anti-government demonstrations.

The PMF bolstered Iraq's security forces during their battle to retake a third of the country from Islamic State, helping secure victory against the militants.

They were later formally integrated into Iraq's official security structure and also wield large political influence.

There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi government on the air strikes. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is backed by Iran and its allies, resigned last month as the protests continued but has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.

Iraq's Fatih alliance, which holds the second-largest number of seats in parliament and largely consists of militia leaders, called the air strikes an attack on Iraq's sovereignty.

"The insolent attack by American forces on security forces which targeted the 45th and 46th brigades of the Popular Moralization Forces in the Qaim area is an attack on national sovereignty and on Iraq's dignity," it said in a statement.

Lebanon's powerful Shi'ite group Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, also condemned the air strikes, calling them a blatant attack on Iraqi sovereignty, security, and stability.

Noa Landau contributed to this report.

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