The Iraqi government on Monday condemned US air strikes on Iranian-backed militias near the Iraqi-Syrian border, and one of the targeted paramilitary groups vowed “open war” against American interests in Iraq.
The attacks, authorized by President Biden, hit facilities used by two militias that the Pentagon accused of involvement in recent drone attacks on US bases in Iraq. The Pentagon said Monday that the overnight air strikes were meant to send a message while avoiding escalation.
But the strikes revived questions about the future of about 2,500 US troops remaining in Iraq, where they serve as one of the country’s main security partners. The government in Baghdad has been unable to stop attacks on its US allies by the Iranian-backed militias, even though they are on the government payroll as the country tries to integrate them into its regular security forces.
The Pentagon said the strikes had hit both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Two of the targets were just across the border into Syria and the third was inside Iraq.
The Iraqi government condemned the strikes as a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.” Major General Yahya Rasool, military spokesman for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, called for avoiding escalation and said Iraq did not want to be turned into an “arena for settling accounts” — a reference to the conflict between the United States and Iranian proxies in Iraq.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said that the United States was disrupting the security of the region with the attacks.
Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s former intelligence chief, called an emergency meeting of security advisers to discuss the US air strikes. The Iraqi Cabinet called them “a flagrant violation” of international law and said Iraq was in the advanced stages of dialogue with the United States on what it said were the logistical details of removing US combat forces from the country.
The United States and Iraq have been negotiating a new framework agreement governing security and other cooperation. Similar statements by the Iraqi government about an agreement to withdraw US combat forces have been aimed at catering to Iranian-backed political parties and militias demanding their removal.
The US troops are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, which still relies on US air power, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance to help fight remnants of the Islamic State. The United States has military advisers and Special Operations forces in the country; they are seen by the Iran-backed militias as combat troops, though the United States and the Iraqi government generally do not view them as such.
The US strikes were the latest escalation in tensions over recent revelations that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq had increasingly been using small, explosive-laden drones in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases, including those used by the CIA and US Special Operations units, according to US officials.
“There are clear signs of escalation,” said Farhad Alaaldin, head of the Iraq Advisory Council think tank, referring to recent attacks by the Iran-backed groups. “Really, the question for the U.S. is: ‘What does it take to say we have had enough, let’s go home?’”
The two militias that were targeted in the strikes, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kata’ib Hezbollah, are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group, which formed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq in 2014. The forces mobilized following a fatwa, or religious edict, from Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, when the Islamic State group was nearing Baghdad in 2014.
Most but not all of the groups are Shiite Muslims, who are a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful ones are backed by Shiite Iran. In 2016, they were merged into the Iraqi government’s security force.
Despite that, the most powerful militias on the Iraqi government payroll are only nominally under control of Baghdad. The Popular Mobilization Forces are made up of more than 50 paramilitary groups with an estimated 160,000 fighters.
Iran over the last two years has decreased its financial support for proxy paramilitary groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon because of the effect of US sanctions, lower oil prices and the pandemic which has closed borders and reduced trade.
So the dozens of militia forces under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces have relied more on Iraqi government funding and moneymaking schemes that include oil smuggling and extortion at Iraqi borders and ports, according to security analysts and government officials.
US officials said they had not relied on Iraqi intelligence to identify and monitor the targets hit overnight, and had not consulted with the Iraqi government in advance. It was not known whether the United States notified Russia in advance of the airstrikes on the Syrian side of the border, but both countries operate in the same airspace in Syria.
The group Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada said that four of its fighters stationed along the border had been killed in the strikes.
“From now on, we will go to open war with the American occupation, the first action of which is targeting the enemy planes in beloved Iraq’s sky,” the group said in a statement.
The command of the Popular Mobilization Forces said that the strikes targeting two of its brigades had been carried out about 10 miles from the border with Syria near the Iraqi town of Qaim in the western province of Anbar. It said that the soldiers had been stationed at the border to prevent Islamic State fighters from infiltrating from Syria.
The Popular Mobilization Forces denied Pentagon claims that weapons storehouses were targeted and said that the airstrikes had targeted its fighters.
A different umbrella group for Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination, vowed revenge and said it would continue to target US forces.
“We will avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs against the perpetrators of this heinous crime and with God’s help, we will make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge,” the group said in a statement.
The airstrikes were the second in the same area authorized by Biden since he came to power and the first since elections in Iran this month in which the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi become president.