The US military hit several targets linked to Iran-backed forces inside Iraq’s al Qaim area on the Syria-Iraq border Sunday night Iraqi time, reportedly killing 25 fighters and wounding over 51. The airstrikes inflame already-high tensions in Iraq, which has been rocked by ongoing protests and escalating tensions between Iranian-backed and Western-backed elements in the region. Although the two sides had an uneasy truce in the fight against ISIS they are now openly at odds.
Who Was Hit In The US Airstrike?
According to the Pentagon, the airstrike was led by F-15E fighter jets and hit five weapons caches and military facilities of the Kataib Hezbollah group—three targeted sites in Iraq’s Anbar province and two in neighboring Syria. Kataib Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed militia active in Iraq which the Pentagon claims is closely aligned with Iran’s Quds Force and is directly armed by Tehran. It is under the broader umbrella of the Popular Mobilization, a group of Iraqi Shiite militias led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, who has been designated as a “global terrorist” by Washington since 2009. The US rationale for the Dec. 27 attack was as a response to a major rocket assault on an Iraqi base outside Kirkuk on Dec. 27 which killed one US military contractor and injured four American troops. According to the Pentagon, locations at which US personnel are present have been struck 11 times just in November and December in this year by Shiite and Iran-backed militias in Iraq.
Kataib Hezbollah stated that Sunday’s American strike killed 25 of its fighters and wounded over 20, while Iraq’s government said 15 Kataib Hezbollah members were killed, including high-ranking member Abu Ali al-Khazaali. It’s the biggest US attack on a Shiite group in a decade and highly significant escalation carrying a chance that economically and diplomatically squeezed Iran will lash out through regional proxies in response. It isn’t the first time the US has hit the al Qaim area: an American attack in 2005 took the lives of dozens of civilians in what the US said was a targeting of al Qaeda safehouses.
Kataib Hezbollah Promises To Get Revenge
Kataib Hezbollah said it is left with no choice but revenge, promising that US President Donald Trump “will pay a heavy price.” The group also repeated calls for all US personnel and military forces to leave Iraq. As Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi continues to serve until a replacement is named—despite technically having resigned due to the ongoing protests—the American attacks on al Qaim show the US has little trust in Iraqi troops to defend US interests and troops in the country. In fact, the US reportedly did not even notify Iraqi officials they were launching the strikes until half an hour prior to execution.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said more US strikes may take place, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed that Iranian actions in the region will be met with force. He was joined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who vowed in a militaristic 2016 speech to “destroy any enemy, anywhere, anytime.” Milley emphasized that the US Army retains its ability to rapidly deploy massive amounts of troops and threatened that “when we show up on your turf and you know the game’s for real, the stakes are for keeps,” in what some interpreted at the time as unambiguously telegraphing a message to Russia and its allies such as Iran.
US Attack In Iraq Is America’s First Anti-Shia Action Since 2014
The Sunday night attack is the first time US forces have hit a Shiite militia in Iraq since they came back in 2014 to fight ISIS. For the past five years Shiite militias and US forces in Iraq have basically avoided each other, since both were de facto allies in the fight against ISIS, however the Pentagon blames Shiite militias for the death of hundreds of US troops during the Iraq War and the rift between the two sides is now back on full blast.
Indeed, Iraq’s government condemned the US airstrikes as a “violation of Iraqi sovereignty” and “a dangerous escalation that will threaten Iraq.” Iraqi PM Abdul-Mahdi—who is himself a former politician in Iraq’s powerful Shia political party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council—is outraged about America’s actions in the country, with his government claiming the attacks on the base near Kirkuk were likely done by ISIS, not Shiite militias or Kataib Hezbollah.
As US forces remain in Iraq on the pretext of fighting remnants of ISIS and maintaining stability, the chance of further escalation with Iranian-backed proxies is significant. Iran’s power in Iraq increased in many ways with the 2003 invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein. The fact that Popular Mobilization and groups like Kataib Hezbollah were very important in defeating ISIS is the uncomfortable truth behind today’s geopolitical reality. Although Iran is detested by many Iraqis for corruption and diplomatic undermining of the country—part of what has sparked the ongoing protests—American escalation of hostilities against Shiite militias now that ISIS is mostly defeated will not result in any simple victory or clear outcome. It is, instead, more mission creep and indicative of the schizophrenic US foreign policy approach of promising to pull out troops even as hostilities and the presence of military contractors increases and US-involved shadow wars around the globe grow in intensity. Sunday’s strike in Iraq could signal the re-entry of a stronger US presence—or presence of US military contractors—in the country just as Trump vows to pull back from the Middle East.