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US strikes Kataib Hizbollah militia targets in Iraq and Syria

U.S. forces on Sunday, December 29 struck five targets of a Shia militia that is accused of carrying out a deadly attack against U.S. and Iraqi forces at a base near Kirkuk.

The strikes on Kataib Hizbollah, a Hashd al-Shaabi militia, were in response to a December 27 rocket attack on that K1 base that killed a U.S. civilian contractor and wounded Iraqi Security Forces and American military personnel.

“The five targets include three KH locations in Iraq and two in Syria. These locations included weapon storage facilities and command and control locations that KH uses to plan and execute attacks on OIR [Operation Inherent Resolve] coalition forces,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Twenty-five fighters, including commanders, were killed in the airstrikes in Iraq, a Hashd al-Shaabi official told AFP. Another 51 fighters were wounded, the group later as it warned that the death toll could increase.

Kataib Hezbollah released a statement late on Sunday calling for retaliation against U.S. forces “to expel the brutal American enemy from our holy land.”

Friday’s attack is the latest in a series of similar strikes often attributed to Iran-linked militias in the country, but is the first to have killed American personnel, raising fears of escalating tensions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran earlier this month that any attacks that “that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests” will be met with “a decisive response.”

U.S.-Iran tensions have soared since the Trump administration pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and imposed crippling sanctions, leaving Baghdad – which is close to both countries – worried about being caught in the middle.

In Thursday’s attack, 30 rockets were fired at the K1 Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, an oil-rich region north of Baghdad, at 10:20 p.m. GMT Friday, a U.S. official told AFP in Washington.

“One U.S. civilian contractor was killed and several U.S. service members and Iraqi personnel were wounded,” the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State said in a press release.

The Coalition said the attack occurred at 7:20 p.m. Baghdad time (1620 GMT).

An Iraqi Armed Forces spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

A direct hit on an ammunition depot caused secondary explosions, and four more rockets were found in their tubes in a truck at the launch point, an American official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Federal security forces, Shiite militia units and Islamic State sleeper cells all have a presence in volatile Kirkuk province, administration of which is politically contested by both Iraq’s Kurdistan and federal authorities.

Rockets and mortars

The attacks come at a time when Iraq is gripped by its biggest wave of anti-government street protests since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The protesters, many of whom were born in the post-Saddam era, have vented their anger at a government they consider inept, corrupt and beholden to neighboring Iran.

Violence has claimed nearly 460 lives, most of them protesters, and left some 25,000 people wounded, but the street rallies and sit-in protests have continued.

The protests led to the resignation of the Iraqi government nearly a month ago, and Iran and its allies in Iraq have since been pushing to place one of their men in the post of prime minister, sparking more popular anger.

The president, Barham Salih, is now threatening to quit in the face of this pressure.

During the period of wider political chaos, the country has also seen a rise of rocket and mortar attacks against Iraqi bases housing U.S. military personnel and against American diplomatic missions.

Ten attacks since October 28 have left several Iraqi military personnel wounded and one dead and caused damage to the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s ultra-secure Green Zone.

Five rockets hit al-Asad air base on December 3, just four days after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited troops there.

And more than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah air base in northern Iraq in November.

‘Very accurate’

In Friday’s attack, a Kirkuk provincial security official told AFP, “the shots were very accurate. The attack was aimed precisely at the area where the Americans are located, near the meeting room.”

The rockets could also have been much more deadly, had it not been for recent poor weather that has led to delays in anti-IS operations and the postponement of a meeting scheduled for Friday on these missions, according to the Iraqi police.

A U.S. source has said that pro-Iran factions in Iraq are now considered a more significant threat to American soldiers than the IS – the threat that saw Washington deploy thousands of troops to the country to assist Baghdad in countering the jihadists’ sweeping 2014 offensive.

Reflecting this concern, “a convoy of 15 American vehicles each carrying armor and weapons” recently arrived at the US embassy in Baghdad, according to an Iraqi security official.

Multiple U.S. diplomatic and military sources have told AFP of their growing frustration with such attacks.

They say they are relying on their Iraqi partners to play a “de-conflicting” role between American forces and the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, paramilitary groups largely made up of Iran-backed Shiite militias that fought Islamic State and have wrested control of trade routes and oil smuggling to immunize themselves from Baghdad’s control.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ordered the PMF to integrate into Baghdad’s official security forces, but many of its fighters and commanders continue to operate with a degree of independence.

With reporting from AFP

This story was updated at 08:50 GMT on December 30, 2019 to include Kataib Hezbollah’s response to the strikes.

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