U.S. warplanes soaring through the skies of Iraq hit a series of sites belonging to an Iranian-backed militia, exacting revenge for a deadly attack on American and coalition troops just 24 hours earlier.
The airstrikes late Thursday and early Friday targeted five weapon storage facilities belonging to Kataib Hezbollah, blamed for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad late Wednesday that killed two U.S. service members and a British soldier, while wounding 14 others.
In a statement, the Pentagon described the strikes as “defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat,” adding that some of the weapon depots had been used to store the Katyusha rockets used in the attack on Camp Taji.
The U.S. statement also said the strikes against Kataib Hezbollah were designed to “significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks against Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces.”
The Iraqi military confirmed the strikes, saying some of the targeted locations also doubled as headquarters for the militia.
The U.S. action was swift but not unexpected, as top defense and military officials had indicated earlier Thursday it was only a matter of time before the U.S. responded.
“The U.S. will not tolerate attacks against our people our interests or our allies,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. “You don’t get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it.”
Even earlier, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, told lawmakers the death of U.S. or allied troops was a “red line.”
He added there was little doubt as to who was responsible.
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 said, referring to a rocket attack against a base in Kirkuk this past December.
Following that incident, which killed a U.S. contractor, the U.S. responded with a series of retaliatory strikes, culminating in January with the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the Iran Quds Force commander who oversaw the activities of the various militias in Iraq, as well as Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, Kataib Hezbollah’s founder.
Despite U.S. assertions that it was behind the attack on Camp Taji, Kataib Hezbollah on Thursday denied it was responsible, urging those who were to come forward.
“Bless those who implemented the precision jihadi operation,” the group said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“We hold their hands,” it added, saying, “now is the most appropriate time for the national and popular forces to resume their jihadi operations to drive out the wicked ones and aggressors from the land of the sanctities.”
Militias like Kataib Hezbollah sometimes operate under the auspices of the Iraqi government, and the Pentagon said senior Iraqi officials were consulted ahead of the airstrikes.
Earlier Thursday, Iraq’s presidency condemned what it called a “terrorist attack” on Camp Taji and stressed the need to find those responsible.
After the last round of U.S. retaliatory strikes this past January, Iran responded by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraq’s al-Asad air base, causing more than 100 U.S. troops to suffer from traumatic brain injuries.
Testifying before U.S. lawmakers this week, McKenzie warned the threat from Tehran had not diminished.
“Ample intelligence indicates the [Iranian] regime’s desire to continue malign activities,” he said. “Going forward it is CENTCOM’s objective to posture forces in the region with the operational depth to achieve a consistent state of deterrence against Iran.”
McKenzie also said the U.S. was “in the process of bringing in” a missile defense system.
The Pentagon has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to send in Patriot missile defense batteries since mid-January.