Iran-backed Iraqi militia vows revenge after U.S. airstrikes
Kataib Hezbollah militia group targeted after a U.S. contractor in Iraq was killed
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Monday condemned U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed Iraqi militia bases, a move that could plunge Iraq further into the heart of a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran.
The U.S. military carried out airstrikes on Sunday against the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.
Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded.
"The prime minister described the American attack on the Iraqi armed forces as an unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences," his office said.
Tensions have risen between Tehran and Washington — Iraq's two main allies — since last year, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that crippled Iran's economy.
About 400 people in Basra protested against the strikes, demonstrating in support of the militias. Protests also took place in Baghdad.
The airstrikes brought threats of reprisal. A leading militia leader vowed revenge against U.S. forces in Iraq.
"The blood of the martyrs will not be in vain and our response will be very tough on the American forces in Iraq," Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, senior commander known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, said late on Sunday. Iran said it strongly condemned the raids as "terrorism."
Mohandes is a senior commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups mostly consisting of Iran-backed Shia militias that was formally integrated into Iraq's armed forces.
He is also one of Iran's most powerful allies in Iraq and formerly headed Kataib Hezbollah, which he founded.
His threat was met positively by his Iranian backers.
"Taking revenge and responding to this crime are the natural right of Iraqi nation and those groups that defend Iraq," the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which trains some Iraqi militias including Kataib Hezbollah, said.
Iraqi security sources said on Monday that U.S. forces in Iraq's northerly Nineveh province were ramping up security overnight, with U.S.-led coalition jets circling the perimeter of its military bases in Mosul and Qayarah.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq, and said any attacks by Tehran or proxies harming Americans or allies would be "answered with a decisive U.S. response."
"We strongly deny any role in the attack on American forces. This claim without any evidence cannot justify bombing and killing people in violation of international law," said Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei, quoted by the semi-official news agency Fars.
Iran's Foreign Ministry called on the United States to respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Israel praises U.S. response
The airstrikes come at a troubled time of protests in Iraq, with thousands taking to the streets to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian backers. They also demand an overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed in unrest as security forces have sought to quell anti-government demonstrations.
Mahdi, who is backed by Iran and its allies, resigned last month as the protests continued but has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
The PMF bolstered Iraq's security forces during their battle to retake a third of the country from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), helping secure victory against the militants.
They were later formally integrated into Iraq's official security structure and also wield large political influence.
Mahdi, who is backed by Iran and its allies, resigned last month as the protests continued, but has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the American airstrikes, demanding respect for Iraq's sovereignty.
"The Iraqi authorities alone are entitled to deal with these practices and take the necessary measures to prevent them. They are called upon do so and to ensure Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores and that others do not interfere in its internal affairs," Sistani's office said in a statement.
Lebanon's powerful Shia group Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, called the airstrikes a blatant attack on Iraqi sovereignty, security and stability.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he congratulated Pompeo "on the important operation by the United States against Iran and its proxies in the region."
Russia, which like Iran and Hezbollah backs President Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria's civil war, said the strikes were unacceptable and counterproductive. The Syrian government also condemned the strikes.