Iraq warns of consequences after six killed in US air strikes

US says it carried out strikes against Iranian-backed militia blamed for killing soldiers

Destruction at Karbala airport, one of the areas targeted by US military air strikes on Thursday night. Photograph: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP via Getty Images

Destruction at Karbala airport, one of the areas targeted by US military air strikes on Thursday night. Photograph: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP via Getty Images

 

Iraq condemned overnight US air strikes on Friday, saying they killed six people and warning of dangerous consequences for what it called a violation of sovereignty and targeted aggression against the nation’s regular armed forces.

President Barham Salih said repeated such violations could cause Iraq to unravel into a failed state and revive the Islamic State militant group. Iraq’s foreign ministry announced plans to bring a complaint to the United Nations.

The United States defended the air strikes, saying all five targets were legitimate and stored Iranian-supplied weapons used by the Kataib Hizbullah militia to attack the US-led coalition. Washington launched the strikes in retaliation for a rocket attack on Wednesday on a base north of Baghdad that killed US and British troops.

“These locations that we struck are clear locations of terrorist bases,” said Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US military’s Central Command.

“If Iraqis were there and if Iraqi military forces were there, I would say it’s probably not a good idea to position yourself with Kataib Hizbullah in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members,” he told a Pentagon news briefing.

The Iraqi military warned the air strikes would have consequences while the foreign ministry said it summoned the US and British ambassadors.

Long-standing antagonism between the United States and Iran has mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months, stoking deep-seated tensions between elements of Iraqi society who oppose the US military presence and those who see US-led coalition support as vital to preventing the resurgence of Islamic State militants.

Gen McKenzie said the death toll from the strike appeared limited. Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement that three soldiers, two policemen and one civilian were killed, according to an initial toll, and that four soldiers, two policemen, a civilian, and five militiamen were injured.

“The pretext that this attack came as a response to the aggression that targeted the Taji base is a false pretext; one that leads to escalation and does not provide a solution,” Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement.

The civilians killed and wounded were construction workers at an airport building site in the Shia Muslim holy city of Kerbala, Iraqi religious authorities said.

Gen McKenzie acknowledged that a structure had been hit near the Kerbala airfield but said it was being used to store weapons.

“That was a clear target,” he said.

Proxy war

Around 5,000 US troops remain in Iraq, most in an advisory capacity, as part of a wider international coalition formed to help Iraq drive back and defeat Islamic State militants.

But the Iraqi military said the new US air attack went against “any partnership” under the coalition. “It will have consequences that subject everyone to the most serious dangers.”

Iran’s foreign ministry said on Friday that the “presence and behavior” of US and allied forces in Iraq was to blame for attacks against them.

Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have regularly rocketed and shelled bases in Iraq that host US forces and the area around the US embassy in Baghdad.

The United States, which believes Iran wants to drive it from the region, has conducted several strikes inside Iraq, killing top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Kataib Hizbullah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

Many Iraqis say it is they who stand to suffer most from US-Iranian tensions and some, including caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, have called for US troops to withdraw.

Gen McKenzie said he was confident the United States would be able to keep troops in Iraq.

He added that while the latest US strikes would deter militia from waging similarly deadly rocket attacks, the risk from Iran and the groups it backs remained high.

“I think the tensions have actually not gone down,” he said.

Parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave after Suleimani was killed. The recent air strikes could see those calls renewed.

Iraq has suffered decades of war, sanctions and sectarian conflict, including the US-led invasion of 2003. – Reuters