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US launches precision air strikes on Iran-backed militia in Iraq after deadly rocket attack

The Iraqi military said one civilian and five security personnel were killed. [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 March, 2020

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The US military launched air strikes against a pro-Iranian group in Iraq following the deaths of two Americans and a Briton in a rocket attack.
The US unleashed a wave of precision air strikes early on Friday which targeted the weapons storage facilities of a powerful Iran-backed militia group in Iraq, marking a major escalation in tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The attacks, which targeted five sites linked to Kataib Hezbollah, came in retaliation to a Wednesday rocket attack on Baghdad's Camp Taji military base.

Two Americans and a 26-year-old British soldier were killed, and 14 others wounded, in a barrage of around 18 rockets, prompting US defence officials to vow retaliation.

''The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies'' Defence Secretary Mark Esper said, hours before launching the missile strikes.

''As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.''

Read more: US, UK soldiers killed in Iraq military base attack

Five weapon storage facilities used for previous attacks on American-led coalition troops were struck by piloted aircraft, in an attack which aimed to ''significantly degrade'' Kataib Hezbollah's ''ability to conduct future strikes'', according to Pentagon spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah.

The sites were dotted around Baghdad, unnamed US officials told AP, with two at Jurf al-Sakher, one in Karbala, one at Al-Musayib, and one at Arab Nawar Ahmad.

Two Iraqi federal policeman were killed in Jurf al-Sakher, an official with the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the state-sponsored umbrella group which includes Kataib Hezbollah, told AP.

The Iraqi military said one civilian and five security personnel were killed.

The PMU's headquarters were also targeted, the army added, as well those of the emergency regiments and the commandos of the 9th division of the Iraqi army.

A local security source who spoke to The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister site said that some fighters evacuated the locations prior to the attacks, following orders from senior commanders.

The Iraqi foreign ministry said Friday that it was summoning the US and British envoys following deadly overnight air strikes on military installations.

While limited in scope and narrowly tailored, the strikes marked a dramatic escalation with Tehran and their proxies in Iraq, only months after Iran launched a massive ballistic missile strike on a US base, which gave more than 100 troops traumatic brain injuries.

In a statement detailing the action, Esper cautioned that the United States was on standby to respond again, if needed.

''We will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region'', Esper said.

The British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace echoed the sentiments of his American counterpart, who received the go-ahead for the strikes by President Donald Trump on Thursday.

The UK supported the right of the US to defend itself, Wallace said, adding that the ''coalition stands shoulder to shoulder in Iraq'' and that ''those who seek to harm our (UK) armed forces can expect to receive a strong response''.

Iraq's heavily fortified Green Zone saw a rapid surge in its  security presence on the ground early Friday morning, with heavy numbers concentrated around the American embassy, as coalition fighter jets scanned the skies overhead, The New Arab reported.

Iran-backed paramilitary groups have regularly shelled the area around the base, where protests in response to tit-for-tat attacks were followed by a US airstrike that killed Iran's most power military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the PMU on 3 January.

Iran responded with a volley of missiles on the western Iraqi base of Ain Al-Asad, which Iran's supreme leader called a ''slap on the face'' for the US.

The violence in Iraq left Baghdad furious, and in January its parliament voted to expel all foreign soldiers from the country in reaction to the killing of Soleimani.

Among them are some 5,200 US forces stationed across Iraq as part of the international coalition - comprised of dozens of countries - formed in 2014 to confront the Islamic State jihadist group, which took swaths of territory that year.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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