The US carried out strikes against Iranian-backed forces at sites across Iraq on Thursday evening, in retaliation for a deadly missile attack on US and UK forces the day before.
American warplanes undertook “defensive precision strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah facilities across Iraq”, a Pentagon official told the FT.
Mark Esper, the secretary of defence, had earlier on Thursday officially blamed Iranian-backed forces for the deaths of two US troops and one British soldier in a rocket attack on an Iraqi base on Wednesday. He warned that the Pentagon had been authorised to respond with “any action necessary” to protect its forces.
Mr Esper said he met with US president Donald Trump and was given authority to “do what we need to do”. “We know they are backed by Iran,” he said. “We will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”
A Pentagon spokesperson said five sites across Iraq had been targeted. A person familiar with the matter told the FT that fixed-wing manned aircraft, not drones, unleashed bombs at all five sites.
“These are facilities for weapons storage, logistics hubs, et cetera, that have been identified as facilitating the rocket attacks that Kata’ib Hizbollah has been conducting. And, obviously, we’re not going to let them do that,” a defence official told the FT.
The defence official said the Pentagon has counted more than 35 rocket attacks against the US since May 2019. The official said commanders on the ground were assessing threats and making requests for additional support as they saw fit. The official said the Pentagon was due to give a full damage assessment early on Friday morning.
A senior administration official said the president had been clear that “we will not stand for the Iranian regime attacking Americans in Iraq or elsewhere, whether directly or through proxies.”
“The United States will take additional action as necessary in self-defence and to deter attacks from Iranian-backed militia groups,” he said.
Kata’ib Hizbollah is one of Iraq’s more militant Iranian-aligned factions and was blamed by Washington for a similar rocket barrage that killed an American contractor in December, triggering a chain of events that brought the US and Iran to the brink of war.
No group has yet claimed responsibility but the Iraqi Shia militia Kata’ib Hizbollah praised the attack in a statement on its website.
“God sends blessings on those who undertook the exact jihadi operation which targeted the occupying American forces in Taji Base”, the group said, adding that it was time to force the “aggressors” to leave.
Washington’s relationship with Tehran has deteriorated rapidly since Mr Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018. The latest incident threatens to provoke another dangerous escalation.
The attack on Wednesday on the base north of Baghdad, known as Camp Taji, consisted of about 18 Katyusha rockets that struck the facility housing US-led coalition forces, according to Centcom, the US military command covering the region. Iraqi security forces said they found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from the base.
General Mark Milley, the top US military officer, had blamed “Shia militia groups” for the attack.
The US has previously blamed Iran-backed Iraqi militias for launching rockets at bases hosting American troops and in the vicinity of the US embassy in Baghdad’s green zone. But the killing of American personnel has always been considered a “red line” in Washington.
The US has been seeking to move Patriot missiles into Iraq in order to defend its bases, but negotiations faltered over a demand from Iraqi leaders for the US to pull out its troops following America’s killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander
US, British and other western troops returned to Iraq after Isis launched a blitz across northern and western parts of the country in 2014, seizing cities including Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi. Baghdad claimed victory over Isis in December 2017, but the western forces have remained as part of an international coalition against Isis and to help train Iraqi troops.