U.S. Airstrikes Target Iraq Militia Following Deadly Attack on Coalition Troops

U.S. airstrikes targeted militias in central Iraq a day after an unclaimed rocket strike killed three U.S.-led coalition personnel and wounded others.

A spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sponsored collective of mostly Shiite Muslim militias, told Newsweek on Thursday that "there have been raids from unknown sources against the area of Jurf al-Nasr in Babil province," wounding Popular Mobilization Forces personnel and impeding on Iraqi national sovereignty. The spokesperson claimed the targets included military medical sites and accused the attackers of also targeting critical operations sites and violating the sanctity of a revered city for Shiite Muslims.

"What was targeted a short while ago was the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces' Jazeera operations," the spokesperson said, referring to the desert region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. "The aircraft that targeted Jurf al-Nasr penetrated the airspace of the Karbala Governorate and the airspace of Karbala is forbidden to pass through as the city contains an important religious site."

Ghazwan al-Aysawi, media relations officer for Karbala Airport, then identified the U.S.-led coalition formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) as the aggressor and said the site was among the targets.

"The coalition strike targeted Karbala Airport, which is still under construction, with three missiles, resulting in the martyrdom of one of worker," Aysawi said in a statement sent to Newsweek by the Popular Mobilization Forces. "The airport is located on the area bordering Najaf Governorate, near Haidariya district."

The Pentagon later acknowledged its role, saying it "conducted defensive precision strikes against Kata'ib Hizbollah (KH) facilities across Iraq."

"These strikes targeted five weapon storage facilities to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks against Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces. These weapons storage facilities include facilities that housed weapons used to target U.S. and coalition troops," the statement 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."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper further warned the U.S. "will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies." He added: "As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region."

The Iraqi military's Security Media Cell stated that "an American aggression occurred by aerial bombardment against the areas (Jurf al-Nasr, al-Musayyib, Najaf, Alexandria) on the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces, emergency regiments and the commandos of the corps of the nineteenth army."

The following day, Iraq's Joint Operations Command strongly condemned the attack, releasing a casualty count that included three dead and four wounded from the Iraqi Army's 19th Commandos Division, two dead and two wounded from 3rd Regiment Babil Province Emergency Police, injuries among the ranks of the Popular Mobilization Forces' 46th Brigade, which includes Kataib Hezbollah, and one civilian Karbala Airport worker killed and another injured, with bodies still reportedly in the rubble.

iraq, rocket, launcher, baghdad, attack
A picture shared March 11 by the Iraqi military's Security Cell shows what was said to be a truck bearing a Katyusha rocket launcher with three projectiles still in their tube. The Pentagon said two U.S. service members and a British soldier were killed in a rocket attack likely conducted by the Kataib Hezbollah militia against a military camp in Iraq that day. IRAQI SECURITY MEDIA CELL

The news came a day after the U.S.-led coalition reported that at least "18 107mm Katyusha rockets" struck the Taji military camp north of Baghdad, killing two U.S. and one U.K. service member, injuring additional personnel. The strike remained unclaimed but was followed by Syrian and Iraqi reports of airstrikes near the Syrian city of Al-Bukamal, located in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, near the border with Iraq.

That stretch of eastern Syria is under the control of the Syrian government and allied Iran-backed militias that have supported Damascus in the battle against ISIS. The Popular Mobilization Forces told Newsweek on Wednesday that it no longer held positions there, but the U.K.-based, pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported up to 26 members of the Iraqi militia had been killed and 15 injured in the strikes.

While Kataib Hezbollah did not claim responsibility for Wednesday's rocket attack in Taji, the group praised "those who carried out the accurate jihadi operation that targeted the U.S. occupation forces at the Taji base in Baghdad" on Thursday and called for further efforts "to expel the evil aggressors from the land of the holy shrines."

General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command blamed "hostile forces, most likely Shia militia groups" for the rocket attack in his testimony Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"While we are still investigating the attack, I will note that the Iranian proxy group Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq," McKenzie told lawmakers.

Wednesday's rockets fell on Taji camp on the birthday of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. The elite military leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January in a major escalation of growing tensions between Washington, Tehran and their respective allies.

Both the U.S. and Iran have battled ISIS across Iraq and Syria, and Iraqi troops and Popular Mobilization Forces stage regular raids against the group. Two U.S. Marines were killed Saturday during anti-ISIS operations. Despite their common foe, Washington and Tehran have increasingly considered one another to be the greatest destabilizing faction in the region, declaring one other's armed forces to be terrorist organizations as frictions worsened over the past year

Since last May, a year after President Donald Trump pulled out of a historic nuclear deal with Iran and other powers, the decades-long rivalry between the two longtime foes has intensified. The Pentagon has sent additional troops and equipment to the region, where unrest quickly ensued. Unclaimed rocket attacks blamed on Iran-aligned militias repeatedly targeted Iraqi military installations housing U.S. troops and unclaimed airstrikes attributed to Israel hit Popular Mobilization Forces sites.

In the volatile leadup to Soleimani's assassination in January, a Pentagon contractor died in a December rocket attack followed by U.S. airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah positions along the border between Iraq and Syria. Violent, pro-militia demonstrations then rocked Washington's embassy in Baghdad, where Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Forces deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed simultaneously at the capital's international airport days later.

Iran retaliated to the slaying with a missile barrage against an Iraqi military base housing U.S. and coalition personnel. Iraqi lawmakers voted to expel all foreign forces.

In response to the rocket attack in Taji, Iraq's Joint Operations Command affirmed Wednesday that "serious discussions are taking place" regarding the U.S.-led coalition's withdrawals but warned operations like the rocket strike "impede these efforts and complicate the situation in Iraq." The command called it a "dangerous and hostile act" and for those responsible to be held accountable.

Iraqi President Barham Salih also called for an investigation and denounced what he called a "terrorist attack." He appealed for "all sides to exercise restraint and calm, and to enable the Iraqi government to carry out its security and sovereign duties."

This article has been updated to include information released the following day by the Iraqi Joint Operations Command.