US strikes hit militia targets in Iraq, Syria

Esper warns of additional action after rocket attack killed civilian contractor

BAGHDAD, Iraq-The United States has carried out airstrikes against a militant pro-Iran group in Iraq, killing more than 20 fighters, two days after a rocket attack on an Iraqi base led to the death of a US civilian contractor.

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The Pentagon said on Sunday it targeted weapons caches or command and control facilities linked to the Shiite Kata’ib Hezbollah group, or KH, in western Iraq, as well as eastern Syria, in response to a barrage of 30 or more rockets fired on Friday.

According to local media, at least 25 fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following US strikes in Iraq.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.”

Four US service members and Iraqi security forces were also wounded in Friday’s attack at the K1 Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, an oil-rich region north of Baghdad.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday the airstrikes were successful, and he did not rule out further action to “deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran”.

Esper also said that he and Pompeo had traveled to Florida, where US President Donald Trump has been spending the Christmas holidays, to brief him on the latest Middle East events.

“KH has a strong linkage with Iran’s Quds Force and has repeatedly received lethal aid and other support from Iran that it has used to attack” coalition forces, the Pentagon said earlier, referring to the external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

A few hours later, four rockets exploded near a base housing US troops close to Iraq’s capital without wounding anyone, an Iraqi security official told Agence France-Presse.

The military spokesman for Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Abel Abdel Mahdi decried “a violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Another powerful pro-Iran faction, the Assaib Ahl al-Haq paramilitary group-whose leaders were recently hit with US sanctions-called for the US to withdraw from Iraq.

“The American military presence has become a burden for the Iraqi state and a source of threat against our forces,” it said in a statement.

“It is therefore imperative for all of us to do everything to expel them by all legitimate means.”

Soared tensions with Iran

US-Iran tensions have soared since Washington pulled out of a 2015 landmark nuclear agreement with Teheran last year and imposed crippling sanctions.

Iraq-which has close relations with both the US and Iran-risks being caught in the middle.

More than 5,000 US troops were deployed in Iraq to support the Iraqi forces in their battles against Islamic State militants, mainly providing training and advising to the Iraqi forces.

In Iraq’s neighbor Syria, Iran backs the government in an eight-year civil war.

Friday’s attack on the K1 base in Kirkuk, Iraq, involved a direct hit on an ammunition depot that set off secondary explosions. Four more rockets were found in their tubes in a truck at the launch point, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Federal security forces, Shiite militia units and Islamic State sleeper cells all have a presence in Kirkuk Province, which is claimed by both Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Region and federal authorities.

Friday’s attack and the US retaliation came as Iraq is gripped by its biggest anti-government street protests since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Protesters, many of whom grew up in the post-Saddam era, have vented their anger at a government they consider inept and corrupt.

Protest related violence has claimed about 460 lives, most of them demonstrators, and left some 25,000 people wounded, but rallies and sit-ins have continued.


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