New Delhi: The US military launched airstrikes on Christmas night against facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias near the Iraq-Syria border, in response to a drone attack that injured three US service members in northern Iraq. The Pentagon said the strikes targeted “operational and weapons storage facilities” at three locations, and that President Joe Biden had authorized the action to protect US personnel and interests.
Kataib Hezbollah is a Shia militant group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US since 2009. It is part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a coalition of mostly Iranian-backed militias that was formed to fight the Islamic State (IS) group and later integrated into the Iraqi security forces. The PMF condemned the US strikes as a “sinful attack” on its forces and vowed to retaliate. It claimed that four of its fighters were killed while conducting a mission to prevent IS infiltration and that they had not been involved in any activity against the US presence in Iraq.
The US strikes came after a drone attack on Wednesday targeted a US-led coalition base at Erbil airport, where about 2,500 US troops are stationed as part of the global coalition supporting Iraqi forces in their fight against IS. Three US service members were wounded in the attack, one of whom was in critical condition, according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He said the US had “clear and compelling evidence” that Kataib Hezbollah and another PMF faction, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, were behind the drone attack and several other recent attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria.
In a statement, Austin said he and Biden would not hesitate to take necessary action to defend US interests and personnel. “I want to make one thing clear: President Biden and I will not allow attacks on US personnel in Iraq to go unanswered,” he said. “We have no higher priority than the protection of our forces and our partners. We do not seek war, but we will defend ourselves and our friends.”
The US strikes were also denounced by the Iraqi and Syrian governments, as well as Iran, which accused the US of “destroying security” in the region and urged it to refrain from creating crises and tensions. The Syrian state media reported that a child was killed in one of the strikes near the border town of Albu Kamal, where Iran and its allies have a significant presence. The US has previously carried out strikes against Iran-backed militias in the area, most notably in February, when it targeted facilities linked to Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada in retaliation for a rocket attack that killed a US contractor and wounded a US service member in Erbil.