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Iraq condemns U.S. airstrikes against Iran-linked groups

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani chairs a meeting with top-ranking officials of the Iraqi armed forces and of the U.S.-led coalition about the future of American and other foreign troops in the country, in Baghdad on Jan. 27.
Hadi Mizban
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani chairs a meeting with top-ranking officials of the Iraqi armed forces and of the U.S.-led coalition about the future of American and other foreign troops in the country, in Baghdad on Jan. 27.

BAGHDAD – Iraqi government officials on Saturday condemned U.S. airstrikes on Iran-linked targets in Iraq, saying the attacks showed that U.S. forces had become a threat to their host country — a sentiment that will likely hasten demands for the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq to leave.

Militia officials named 16 fighters they said were killed in the strikes late Friday, including five medics they said died when an airstrike hit a base hospital in western al-Anbar province.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — made up of armed groups that are now part of Iraqi government security forces — said seven of the 16 fatalities were killed when the U.S. bombed its al-Anbar province operations headquarters. It said at least 36 more people were injured and searches were ongoing for missing fighters.

The mayor of al-Qaim, a city close to the border with Syria where some of the targets were located, told NPR by phone that at least one civilian was also killed in the strikes and at least five homes near the operations headquarters were destroyed.

"We had information that the area would be bombed a day or two before," said the mayor, Turki Muhammad Khalaf. He said many of the residents near the base had evacuated their homes as a precaution.

The U.S. said it launched the attacks as retaliation for the killing of three U.S. soldiers in a drone attack last Sunday on a remote base in Jordan, also close to borders with Syria and Iraq. The U.S. blamed the strike on the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of militias, and said it believed the attack bore the fingerprints of Kataib Hezbollah, the most powerful militia in the group.

Kataib Hezbollah said after the attack in Jordan that it was suspending strikes on U.S. targets to avoid "embarrassing" the Iraqi government, which has come under intense U.S. pressure to try to halt the attacks. By Saturday evening, the militia had not commented on the Friday night attacks.

Another militia group, Harakat al-Nujaba, told the Associated Press that the U.S. must understand that "every action elicits a reaction" but that the group did not want to escalate regional tensions.

A spokesman for the group told the AP the targeted bases were mostly empty at the time of the U.S. attacks.

The Iraqi government spokesman condemned the strikes targeting the Popular Mobilization Forces as "blatant aggression" and a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The PMF was formed from dozens of militias which answered a call by Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric to fight the Sunni militant group ISIS in 2014 after Iraqi army divisions collapsed in the face of the ISIS onslaught.

The Iraqi government declared three days of mourning for the dead.

"This aggressive airstrike will push the security situation in Iraq and the region to the brink of the abyss," said Basim Alawadi, the government spokesman. "We assert that the presence of the international coalition, which deviated from its assigned tasks and granted mandate, has become a reason for endangering security and stability in Iraq. It also serves as a justification for entangling Iraq in regional and international conflicts." Alawadi said U.S. claims that it had informed the Iraqi government of the strikes beforehand were not true, calling it "intentional deception."

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and senior Iraqi military leaders have told Western diplomats they believe the U.S.-led coalition and the intelligence, surveillance and technological assets it provides are still needed in Iraq, but it appears to have become politically untenable for those forces to stay in Iraq.

Sudani last week convened a meeting of Iraqi and U.S. military officials for what he described as the start of a timetable for a departure of U.S.-led forces. The U.S. maintains about 2,500 service members in Iraq and another 900 in neighboring Syria. Although their mission is helping Iraq and Syrian Kurds fight ISIS, the U.S. government's focus on isolating Iran has sparked concern in Iraq and Iran that that is now the major preoccupation of the U.S. military presence here.

The militias are in part a legacy of the security vacuum after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when U.S. occupation authorities disbanded Iraq's armed forces. Al-Qaida sprung up in that vacuum, launching waves of bombing attacks on both U.S targets and undefended Shia shrines and neighborhoods, prompting the rise of Shiite militias to counter both them and the U.S. forces. Iraq quickly spiraled into a civil war.

Dozens of militias formed when ISIS – a successor to al-Qaida in Iraq – burst onto the scene in 2014. Many of those militias were incorporated into Iraq's official security forces and put on the Iraqi government payroll with the defeat of ISIS in Syria five years later. Although they are nominally under the command of the Iraqi prime minister, many of the major groups have stronger links to Iran.

Some of the Iran-linked militias based in Iraq are part of The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose group that escalated attacks against U.S. military targets from Iraq and Syria after the start of the Gaza war. Militia leaders have said they will stop attacks against the U.S. when the war in Gaza, in which the U.S. supplies weapons to Israel, stops.

Awadh al-Taie contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.