Baghdad has warned it will “review” its relationship with Washington as Iraqis condemned US air strikes on an Iranian-backed militia that killed at least 27 fighters and threatened to escalate tensions in the region.
Washington launched strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah on Sunday in retaliation for a rocket attack at a military base in northern Iraq hosting American personnel, killing a US contractor.
The attacks will heighten concerns that Iraq risks becoming an arena for confrontation between the US and Iran, which have been locked in a months-long stand-off over President Donald Trump’s decision to impose crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Iraq’s National Security Council said the US action had “pushed Iraq to review its relationship” with Washington to “preserve the country’s sovereignty and security and protect the souls of its sons”. “The Iraqi government condemns this act and considers it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” the council said in a statement after meeting on Monday.
As tensions ramped up across the region this year, diplomats and analysts have warned that Iran could use its regional proxies, including Iraqi Shia groups, to target US interests and those of its allies. Washington has blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack that struck at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure in September, as well as sabotage attacks on tankers in the Gulf in May and June.
Kata’ib Hizbollah, which is one of the more militant and pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, has vowed revenge for the US strikes that hit three sites associated with the group in Iraq and two in Syria.
“After this crime, Kata’ib Hizbollah . . . are calling for readiness to turn over a new page of dignity to expel the brutal American enemy from our sacred land,” Kata’ib said on Monday.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, called the US strikes “a decisive response” to the attack on American personnel. He added that it showed Washington would not stand for Iranian “actions that put American men and women in jeopardy”.
Pro-Iranian Iraqi militias have previously launched rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq this year. But this was the first in which an American national was killed, a red line for Washington. Up to 30 rockets were believed to have been fired at the base hosting US troops near Kirkuk.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, on Monday condemned the American strikes and said Iraqi authorities must work to prevent the country from becoming a “battleground to settle regional and international rivalries”.
Abbas Mousavi, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, described the assault as a “clear example of terrorism”.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Washington and Tehran have been the dominant foreign actors in Iraq.
Iran and Iraq share a long border and cultural links, as the populations of both nations are majority Shia Muslim. Many of Iraq’s Shia leaders have had ties with Iran since the 1980s and 1990s, when they were in exile during the reign of Saddam.
But Washington has accused Iran of spreading “malign influence” in Iraq through Shia militias Tehran has trained and armed, like Kata’ib, and using them as proxies.
The militias’ influence has increased since they were mobilised to fight Isis as the jihadi group advanced towards Baghdad in 2014. Many have political wings with representatives in parliament and the coalition government.
Kata’ib’s leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, is the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Units, a state-sanctioned umbrella under which the militias were grouped to give them greater legitimacy.
The US has about 5,000 troops based in Iraq, where they have been involved in the fight against Isis and training Iraqi forces.
Shia militia leaders and affiliated Iraqi politicians have previously called for American troops to leave and the attacks against Kata’ib are likely to revive the calls.
The attacks come as Iraq is gripped by a political crisis triggered by its most serious anti-government protests in years.
Adel Abdul Mahdi, the prime minister, resigned in November, but continues to lead a caretaker government as rival Iraqi factions battle over who should replace him. Mr Mahdi and Barham Salih, Iraq’s president, sought to dissuade the US from launching the retaliatory strikes but failed, said Abdul Kareem Khalaf, military spokesperson for the prime minister.
“This is a grave escalation of the conflict between US and Iran-backed groups,” said Kawa Hassan, vice-president of the Middle East and north Africa programme at the EastWest Institute.
Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar