(CNSNews.com) – U.S. forces carried out retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias overnight Thursday following a rocket attack on an Iraqi base that killed two U.S. troops and one British soldier.
The Pentagon said the airstrikes targeted facilities of Kata’ib Hezbollah (K.H.). The Qods Force-backed Shi’ite militia has a long history of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.
“These strikes targeted five weapon storage facilities to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks against Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces,” it said in a statement, referring to the U.S.-led coalition helping the Iraqis to defeat ISIS.
“These weapons storage facilities include facilities that housed weapons used to target U.S. and coalition troops,” it said.
“These strikes were defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMG) who continue to attack bases hosting OIR coalition forces.”
The Iraq Security Media Cell, which falls under the prime minister’s office, reported airstrikes around 1:15 AM Friday local time (6:15 PM U.S. eastern) on sites linked to the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition dominated by Qods Force-backed militias.
It said strikes were reported in Najaf, Alexandria, Al-Musayyib and Jurf Al-Nasr, all south of Baghdad.
Wednesday night’s Katyusha rocket attack on the Camp Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad, cost the lives of two American and one British service member, and wounded 14 others.
“The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the strikes. “As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier Thursday, U.S. Central Command commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie spoke about loss of American lives or those of its allies as a “red line” as the U.S. confronts Iranian aggression via its proxies in the region.
“We may ultimately live with a low level of proxy attacks in the region. We may not be able to completely do away with that,” he said.
“I would tell you certainly, I would believe a ‘red line’ for the United States is going to be the death of U.S. service members or those of our partners and allies.”
‘That gave them something to think about’
After the IRGC Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ballistic missile strike that followed the killing of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, “they have stood their missiles down, they’re no longer – I don’t think that’s an imminent threat,” McKenzie said, referring specifically to state-on-state attacks on the United States.
“What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies, indirectly against us.”
“I believe that deterrence is born of an appreciation in the mind of the adversary of both capability and will,” he said. “And we over the last few months have demonstrated both of that.”
McKenzie agreed that the killing of Soleimani had “chastened” the regime’s leaders.
“They’ve never doubted out capability,” he said. “They often doubted our will. And I think that gave them something to think about.”
McKenzie said Iran’s objective was to get U.S. forces to leave Iraq, as a step to get them ejected from the region entirely.
While they were seeking to achieve that end through indirect attacks by their proxies, “Iran needs to understand that we hold them ultimately responsible for SMG attacks in Iraq.”
“You want to convince the ultimate source of the aggression [that is, Iran] that the object they pursue is too costly to pursue.”
McKenzie is due to provide more information about Thursday night’s airstrikes at a Pentagon briefing on Friday morning.
Kata’ib Hezbollah is the group the U.S. blamed for a Katyusha rocket attack on a base near Kirkuk in late December in which an American contractor was killed. The seven days that followed that attack saw retaliatory U.S. airstrikes on K.H. bases, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad come under attack by K.H. members and supporters, and the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani, together with a top K.H. leader, near Baghdad airport.
K.H. and another Iran-backed Iraqi militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), are blamed together with their Qods Force handlers of responsibility for the deaths of around 500 U.S. military personnel in Iraq between 2005 and 2011.
Six months before the Obama administration withdrew the last U.S. troops at the end of 2011, K.H. claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack on U.S. forces of that year. Five 1st Infantry Division soldiers were killed in a June 6 assault on a base near Baghdad airport, and a sixth soldier later died of his injuries.
The U.S. has designated Kata’ib Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization since 2009, and added AAH to the FTO list immediately after the killing of Soleimani.