PENTAGON / WASHINGTON - U.S. retaliatory strikes late Thursday and early Friday hit five weapons depots of the Iranian-backed group Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the commander who oversees U.S. operations in the Middle East warned that the threat from Iran and its proxies “remains high.”
“We are confident that we have effectively destroyed these facilities,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said Friday during a Pentagon briefing, adding that the U.S. military assessed “the destruction of these sites will degrade Kataib Hezbollah’s ability to conduct future strikes.”
Images provided to reporters by CENTCOM showed the five U.S. strike locations were within about 150 km of Camp Taji, the Iraqi base that came under a rocket attack on Wednesday that killed two American service members and a British medic and wounded at least 14 others.
In a statement, the Pentagon described the strikes in Iraq as "defensive” and “proportional,” adding that some of the weapon depots had been used to store the Katyusha rockets used in the attack on Camp Taji.
McKenzie said Iran was “ultimately” behind Kataib Hezbollah and had provided the group with large numbers of advanced conventional weapons. He said that while the United States had achieved “state-to-state” deterrence with Iran, the U.S. was now moving Patriot missile defense systems into Iraq to protect U.S. forces from Iranian missile attacks, although the Patriots were “days away” from being ready.
“I think tensions have actually not gone down," McKenzie said Friday. “They [Iranian leaders] have always respected our capability but they've had doubts about our will, and so our will is now a little more obvious to them.”
The Pentagon has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to send in Patriot missile defense batteries since mid-January.
McKenzie added that he was keeping two aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf region to help deter attacks, the first time two carriers have operated in the region since 2012.
In a statement Friday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, "Instead of dangerous actions and baseless accusations," U.S. President Donald Trump "should reconsider the presence and behavior of his troops in the area."
The Iraqi military confirmed the strikes, saying some of the targeted locations had also doubled as headquarters for the militia.
في تمام الساعة الواحدة والربع فجر هذا اليوم حصل اعتداء امريكي من خلال قصف جوي على مناطق (جرف النصر، المسيب، النجف، الاسكندرية) على مقرات تابعة للحشد الشعبي وأفواج الطوارئ ومغاوير الفرقة التاسعة عشر جيش.— خلية الإعلام الأمني🇮🇶 (@SecMedCell) March 12, 2020
وسنوافيكم بالتفاصيل من خلال بيان يصدر من قيادة العمليات المشتركة لاحقًا.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command called the U.S. strikes a “blatant attack” in a tweet Friday.
“I don't know whether the Iraqis are happy or unhappy. We've talked to them and expressed our concern after the attack. These locations that we struck are clear locations of terrorist bases,” McKenzie told reporters.
The CENTCOM commander added that it was “probably not a good idea to position” with Kataib Hezbollah “in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members.”
The U.S. action was swift but not unexpected, as top defense officials had indicated earlier Thursday that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. responded.
"The U.S. will not tolerate attacks against our people our interests or our allies," Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. "You don't get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it."
Even earlier, McKenzie, told lawmakers the death of U.S. or allied troops was a "red line." He added there was little doubt as to who was responsible.
Kataib Hezbollah is "the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq," McKenzie said, referring to a rocket attack against a base in Kirkuk in December.
Following that incident, which killed a U.S. contractor, the U.S. responded with a series of retaliatory strikes, culminating in January with the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the Iran Quds Force commander who oversaw activities of various militias in Iraq, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Kataib Hezbollah's founder.
Despite U.S. assertions that it was behind the attack on Camp Taji, Kataib Hezbollah on Thursday denied it was responsible, urging those who were to come forward.
"Bless those who implemented the precision jihadi operation," the group said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
"We hold their hands," it added, saying, "now is the most appropriate time for the national and popular forces to resume their jihadi operations to drive out the wicked ones and aggressors from the land of the sanctities."
Militias like Kataib Hezbollah sometimes operate under the auspices of the Iraqi government, and the Pentagon said senior Iraqi officials were consulted ahead of the airstrikes.
Earlier Thursday, Iraq's presidency condemned what it called a "terrorist attack" on Camp Taji and stressed the need to find those responsible.
After the last round of U.S. retaliatory strikes this past January, Iran responded by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraq's al-Asad air base, causing more than 100 U.S. troops to suffer from traumatic brain injuries.