British army also takes part in strikes on Kataib Hezbollah weapons facility day after missiles fired at base kill 3 troops.
WASHINGTON — The US launched airstrikes in Iraq Thursday, American officials said, targeting the Iranian-backed Shia militia members believed responsible for the rocket attack that killed and wounded American and British troops at a base north of Baghdad.
One US official said multiple strikes targeted Kataib Hezbollah weapons facilities inside Iraq. The strikes were joint operation with the British, that official said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because operations were still going on.
The strikes marked a rapid escalation in tensions with Tehran and its proxy groups in Iraq, just two months after Iran carried out a massive ballistic missile attack against American troops at a base in Iraq.
US defense leaders on Thursday threatened a retaliatory strike against Iranian-backed Shia militia in Iraq, saying they know who launched the rockets in Iraq that killed and wounded US and coalition troops and the attackers will be held accountable.
Two US troops and one British service member were killed and 14 other personnel were wounded when 18 rockets hit the base on Wednesday. The US military said the 107 mm Katyusha rockets were fired from a truck launcher that was found by Iraqi security forces near the base after the attack.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier told reporters at the Pentagon that President Donald Trump had given him the authority the day before to do what he needs to do to retaliate for Wednesday’s deadly attack.
“We’re going to take this one step at a time, but we’ve got to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Esper said. “You don’t get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it.”
On Capitol Hill, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, told senators that the deaths of US and coalition troops is a “red line” for the US, but said he doesn’t think Iran has “a good understanding of where our red line is.”
Asked if any counterattack could include a strike inside Iran, Esper said, “We are focused on the group that we believe perpetrated this in Iraq.”
Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for a late December rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a US contractor, prompting American military strikes in response.
That in turn led to protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad. They were followed January 3 by a U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s most powerful military officer, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a member. In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran launched a massive ballistic missile attack on Jan. 8, at al-Asad air base in Iraq, that resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops.
McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning that the killing of Soleimani and the increase in US troops and assets in the region has made clear to Iran that the US will defend its interests there. He said the US has re-established a level of deterrence for state-on-state attacks by Iran.
But, he said, “What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly again us. That is a far more difficult area to deter.”
On Thursday, Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they spoke with their British counterparts about the attack, but declined to provide details.
Asked why none of the rockets was intercepted, Milley said there are no systems on the base capable of defending against that type of attack.
He also said the 14 injured personnel were a mix of US and allied troops as well as contractors, and that they will also be monitored for possible traumatic brain injury in the wake of the blasts.
Source: The Times of Israel