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Coalition troops in Iraq come under more rocket fire

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Via Financial Times

Militants have fired rockets at an Iraqi military base wounding Iraqi troops and members of the US-led coalition forces, days after two American troops and a British soldier were killed in an attack on the facility, news agencies reported.

The coalition said at least 25 rockets hit Camp Taji on Saturday morning, wounding three of its troops, without specifying nationality, and two Iraqi troops. There has been no claim of responsibility.

The assault comes after Washington launched retaliatory strikes against an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in the latest escalation of tension between the US and Iran and its proxies.

Washington blamed Kata’ib Hizobollah, one of the more militant Iraqi militias aligned to Iran, for the deadly rocket barrage on Wednesday. The US responded by launching strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah sites, wounding some militiamen but also killing three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and a civilian working on an airport construction site.

The Pentagon said the US attack on Thursday was “proportional” and involved “defensive precision” strikes. But the strikes were condemned by Iraq’s president Barham Salih as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

The attack was the first by the US against Iranian proxies since Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, near Baghdad airport in January.

The assassination brought the US and Iran to the brink of war and strained Washington’s relationship with Baghdad, where some Iraqi officials have called for American forces to leave the country.

Washington and Tehran have been locked in a stand-off since Mr Trump in 2018 withdrew the US from the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers. The Islamic regime, which backs militant groups across the region, has vowed to drive the more than 5,000 US troops in Iraq out of the country.

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Washington has repeatedly accused Iranian-back Iraqi militants of firing rockets at bases housing US troops, but casualties have been rare.

General Kenneth McKenzie, US military commander for the region, said this week that the US would move Patriot missiles to Iraq in the coming days. But pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia paramilitaries, some of whom belong to a state-sponsored umbrella of security groups known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, used the American strikes to renew calls for US withdrawal.

Harakat al-Nujabaa, one of the more hardline Iran-backed militias, said in a statement on Friday that the paramilitaries were united in their demand for “the expulsion of all American and foreign forces from Iraqi territory”.

Pro-Iranian political blocs affiliated to the Iraq’s Shia paramilitaries swayed a parliamentary vote that demanded the government push out the US-led foreign forces after the killing of Soleimani.

But the initiative had stalled with Baghdad in political paralysis, as rival political factions squabble over the appointment of a new prime minister to form a government. The previous administration quit in the face of mass protests against political corruption and the influence of foreign powers — including Iran and America — on Iraq’s governance.

The latest escalation comes at a difficult time for oil Iraq, which relies on exporting hydrocarbons for the vast majority of its government revenue and is braced for the economic shock of low oil prices. Major cities are also in lockdown as Iraq tries to tackle an outbreak of coronavirus.

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