US air strikes targeting pro-Iranian military factions in Iraq killed one civilian and five security personnel early Friday, the Iraqi military said, warning the raids risked a bloody escalation in the war-battered country.
The Pentagon said the strikes were in retaliation for rocket fire against an Iraqi base on Wednesday night that killed one British and two US military personnel, the deadliest such attack in years.
The US strikes hit bases hosting personnel from the state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi military network, US military officials said. The same bases also host Iraqi government forces.
Among those hit were areas controlled by Kataeb Hezbollah, a hardline Hashed faction that the US has blamed for several attacks on foreign troops in Iraq.
The Iraqi military said its preliminary death toll from the air strikes was three Iraqi soldiers, two policemen and one civilian working at an unfinished airport south of Baghdad.
There were no Hashed members among the dead but the toll could rise as some bodies were still stuck under the rubble, the statement said.
Hashed fighters were among 11 Iraqi fighters wounded in the bombardment, some of them critically. One civilian was also wounded.
The military warned the air strikes risked “escalation and deterioration of the security situation in the country, and exposes everyone to more risks and threats.”
President Barham Saleh condemned them as a violation of the country’s sovereignty that could “slide Iraq into anarchy and chaos”.
The foreign ministry denounced “American aggression” and summoned the US and British ambassadors over the strikes, saying it would lodge complaints with the United Nations and the UN Security Council.
– ‘Illegal occupation‘ –
Top US military and civilian officials had long expressed frustration that Iraq’s government was not doing enough to prevent rocket attacks targeting US troops and diplomats.
In its statement, the Pentagon said the strikes, which began around 1:00 am (2200 GMT Thursday), hit five Hashed facilities.
It said they were “defensive, proportional and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups who continue to attack bases” hosting foreign troops in Iraq.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The response to the cowardly attack on coalition forces in Iraq has been swift, decisive and proportionate.”
A US official told AFP that the warplanes hit logistics nodes and drone storage units.
Among the targets were the Jurf al-Sakhr area south of Baghdad, a militarised zone controlled by Kataeb Hezbollah, according to an Iraqi security source.
The unfinished new airport serving the shrine city of Karbala was also hit, according to its spokesman Ghazwan Issawi.
“Five missiles hit the administrative building at the airport and 18 cars were destroyed,” Issawi told AFP, claiming no armed groups have a presence there.
There was no immediate statement from the Hashed but one of its Iran-aligned factions, Harakat al-Nujaba, slammed the air raids as evidence of Washington’s “illegal occupation” of Iraq.
And Iran warned US President Donald Trump against “dangerous actions” in the region.
Its foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Washington was reaping the “consequences of its illegal presence in Iraq and (the country’s) reaction to the assassination and killing of Iraqi commanders and fighters”.
– Repeated attacks –
Some 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition helping local troops root out the remnants of the Islamic State group.
But they have come under fire in recent months: nearly two dozen rocket attacks have targeted US troops and diplomats since late October.
One such attack on a base in northern Iraq in December killed a US contractor, prompting Washington to respond with air strikes on Kataeb Hezbollah in western Iraq.
Days later, Washington killed Iran’s powerful foreign operations chief Qasem Soleimani — whom the US said had orchestrated the rocket attacks — and the Hashed’s deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike outside Baghdad airport.
Iran launched ballistic missiles at US troops in Iraq while the Iraqi parliament voted to expel all foreign soldiers from its soil, a decision that has yet to implemented.
The spiralling tensions brought the two countries close to war, and the latest episode this week had worried Iraqi officials that their country would once again be a battleground for regional tensions.