The US has bombed a Shia paramilitary group, backed by Iran, that Washington blames for a rocket attack in Iraq on Friday during which an American civilian contractor was killed.
Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the US defence secretary, said on Sunday night that US forces had conducted five “precision, defensive strikes” against Kata’ib Hizbollah, an Iraqi militia linked to Tehran.
Kata’ib is part of the umbrella group of paramilitaries that fought Isis, and have been sponsored by the Iraqi state, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units.
The US attacks mark an escalation in the simmering proxy war between America and Iran, which Iraqis fear their country could be sucked into. This marks the first time that the US has struck a group which is part of the Hashd.
Mr Hoffman said Kata’ib was responsible for “repeated . . . attacks on Iraqi bases” which host US troops that are helping Iraqi forces to combat Isis, the Sunni jihadi group, including Friday’s rocket assault. US forces struck five Kata’ib targets in total, three in Iraq and two in Syria, Mr Hoffman said. He added that the locations were “weapon storage facilities, and command and control locations”.
“Iran and their [Kata’ib Hizbollah] proxy forces must cease their attacks on US and coalition forces, and respect Iraq’s sovereignty, to prevent additional defensive actions by US forces,” Mr Hoffman said in a statement.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said that one of the US strikes had hit a base run by Hashd Brigade 45 on the Iraq-Syria border, killing four fighters and injuring 30, adding that the brigade was combating Isis. Militias have officially shed their names to be brought under the Hashd umbrella — Brigade 45 is Kata’ib Hizbollah.
The US used drones to attack Kata’ib’s base on the Iraq-Syria border, according to Jawad Kadhim al-Rubaie, head of the Hashd directorate.
The American strike on an official Iraqi security force will put Baghdad in an awkward position, at a time when its government has resigned in the face of mass protests against the political elite.
The Hashd was formed after thousands of Iraqis volunteered to take up arms in the fight against Isis, following a call by Iraq’s supreme Shia jurist in 2014.
Kata’ib Hizbollah is one of the groups which came under its umbrella, however it long predated the Isis insurgency and had fought American troops during the post-2003 US-led occupation of Iraq.
The Hashd enjoyed strong popular legitimacy during the war against Isis, and Hashd-linked political parties made huge gains at the polls in elections in 2018.
But allegations of racketeering, smuggling and intimidation by Hashd groups, as well as deep ties to Iran, have left many Iraqis worried that the Hashd’s growing power threatens the state it was formed to protect.