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U.S. counters Iraq’s condemnation of airstrikes on Iran-backed militia facilities

Iraq's military condemned overnight U.S. strikes on March 13, describing them as a violation of sovereignty and claiming they killed a cvilian. (Video: Reuters)

LONDON — The United States and Iraq on Friday wrangled over the impact of airstrikes carried out to avenge the deaths of coalition soldiers this week, with a top U.S. general saying the munitions hit military targets while officials in Baghdad insisted that Iraqi troops and a civilian were among the dead.

The U.S. military said it had launched “defensive precision strikes” early Friday morning against targets linked to the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah, calling them a proportional response to a rocket attack that killed one British and two American service members Wednesday.

Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., the chief of U.S. Central Command, said the strikes were carried out by manned aircraft and hit five weapon storage facilities believed to be used by Kataib Hezbollah south and west of Baghdad.

The U.S. military said on March 13 that it had launched “defensive precision strikes” against targets linked to the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group in Iraq. (Video: U.S. Central Command)

“We assessed that each location stored weapons that would enable lethal operations against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq,” he said. “We also assessed that the destruction of these sites will degrade Kataib Hezbollah’s ability to conduct future strikes.”

McKenzie said the U.S. military was “very comfortable with the level of damage that we were able to achieve” at those sites.

But in Iraq, the strikes were met with condemnation and risked intensifying the pressure on U.S.-led coalition troops to leave the country. The Iraqi military described the action as “treacherous,” and Iraqi President Barham Salih described it as a “violation of national sovereignty.”

Leading military and political figures said three soldiers and two policemen were killed in the attacks, along with a civilian who was working in an airport that was under construction. In a statement early Friday, another Iran-aligned militia said that further strikes could prompt retaliation involving an “eye for an eye.”

It was unclear whether any militiamen were killed in the airstrikes, although McKenzie said he expected fatalities.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have soared in the years since President Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal involving the two nations, and Iraq has emerged as one of their most volatile proxy battlegrounds.

Authorities in charge of Karbala International Airport said that one of their facilities had been hit and that a civilian working there had been killed. At his briefing Friday, McKenzie acknowledged that one of the strike sites was at a civilian airport.

The facility has been under construction since 2017. Iraqi state television channels showed a dilapidated building with windows blown out. Peeling off above the door was blue lettering that read “Karbala International Airport” and “Site Offices.”

U.S. officials are still assessing the target sites, McKenzie said, in part because bad weather had made it difficult to do so immediately. The locations were “clearly terrorist bases,” McKenzie added, and if Iraqi military forces were there, “it’s probably not a good idea to position yourself with Kataib Hezbollah in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members.”

The strikes risk compounding tensions between the U.S.-led coalition and an array of political and armed forces that want Western forces to leave Iraq. Kataib Hezbollah has threatened Iraqis working with the U.S.-led coalition and told them to distance themselves before March 15 or face attack.

Iran backs a handful of powerful militias in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah, and representatives of each group hold positions within the state apparatus.

The militias often help enforce Tehran’s interests, staging attacks against a protest movement that is critical of them or against the U.S. forces that Iran wants to expel. But security experts say Iran’s overall control of these militias remains unclear.

In the briefing Friday, McKenzie insisted that the Karbala airport site had been used to store weapons.

“It may have been on the airfield. I can’t tell you what else was in there, but I know it was being used for purposes of targeting us. That’s the reason we struck it,” he said.

Trump has made it clear that the death of American personnel in Iraq is a red line for his administration. The death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack late last year set in motion escalating tit-for-tat strikes that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war after Trump ordered the killing of renowned Iranian military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Iran hit back with a wave of ballistic missiles that injured more than 100 U.S. soldiers.

Tensions have ebbed since January, but U.S. and European officials say Iran-backed militias have continued to launch rockets at Iraqi military bases hosting coalition troops and on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

On Friday morning, the Pentagon released the identities of the U.S. troops killed in the rocket attack Wednesday on Camp Taji.

They were Army Spec. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, of Hanford, Calif., and Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28, of Owasso, Okla. Mendez Covarrubias was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade at Fort Hood, Tex., and Roberts was a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard’s 219th Engineering Installation Squadron.

The British government identified its fatality as Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon, 26, a reservist and combat medical technician deployed with the Irish Guards Battle Group.

The United States surged thousands of troops to the Middle East in January as tensions soared. Thousands have since left or are preparing to leave. But McKenzie indicated that the number could rise again soon, as a second aircraft carrier, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its accompanying strike force, arrive.

He also indicated that new defensive weapons are arriving in Iraq, including Patriot missiles that can defend against Iranian ballistic missiles and rapid-fire guns that are designed to defend against rockets.

Lamothe reported from Washington; Salim reported from Baghdad.

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