Iraq slams ‘unacceptable’ US strikes on pro-Iran fighters

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Iraq on Monday condemned overnight US air strikes against Iran-backed armed groups on the Syrian-Iraqi border that killed at least seven fighters and sparked calls for revenge from Iraqi armed factions.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi condemned the attack as a "blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security".

In a statement released Monday, Kadhimi called on all sides to avoid further escalation. "Iraq reiterates its refusal to be an arena for settling scores," he said.

The US strikes in response to drone attacks by militia against US personnel and facilities in Iraq were the second such raid on pro-Iran targets since President Joe Biden took office. The attack, described by the Pentagon as "retaliatory", led to fears of a new escalation between Tehran and Washington and came despite faltering efforts to revive a key deal over Iran's nuclear programme.

In a statement released Sunday, the US military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.

Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction they said were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate.

But Iraqi officials say they want to avoid being dragged into a tit-for-tat escalation between Washington and Tehran.

Following an emergency security meeting in Baghdad Monday, the Iraqi government – in a rare admonishment of US action by the Kadhimi administration – said it was studying “all legal options” to prevent such action being repeated.

Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.

"As demonstrated by this evening's strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect US personnel," the Pentagon said in a statement.

Blinken: ‘Necessary, appropriate, deliberate action’

The strikes came even as Biden's administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalise such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.

Biden's critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a US military presence in Iraq or Syria.

Speaking at a meeting in Rome, Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the air strikes sent an important message to Iran-backed militias. "We took necessary, appropriate, deliberate action that is designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message," Blinken told reporters.

US officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against US personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the US military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.

Two US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by US and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The US military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

"We assess each strike hit the intended targets," one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq's government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against US forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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