- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2019

A powerful pro-Iran Iraqi militia vowed direct “confrontation” with the U.S. on Monday after weekend airstrikes killed 25 of its members, and the American attacks threaten to send already tense relations between Washington and Tehran spiraling downward in the new year.

The governments of both Iran and Iraq publicly blasted the Trump administration for the series of strikes across Iraq and Syria over the weekend. The bombings targeted Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah militia, which the U.S. military says is responsible for a deadly rocket attack last week on a U.S. military compound near Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

The retaliatory strikes — along with reports that top administration officials were presenting President Trump with options for additional actions against Iranian proxies — are ratcheting up tensions with Tehran while also disrupting the delicate relationship between Washington and the government in Baghdad. While U.S. officials defended the attacks Monday as necessary given Iran’s continued provocations, it quickly became clear that further violence could be on the horizon.

“Our battle with America and its mercenaries is now open to all possibilities,” Kataeb Hezbollah said in a statement early Monday morning. “We have no alternative today other than confrontation and there is nothing that will prevent us from responding to this crime.”

Iranian officials noted that Iraq’s Shiite militia forces attacked by the U.S. had played a critical role in the military campaign to roll back Islamic State in the country.

“The attacks once again proved the Americans’ false claim about fighting the Islamic State group,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi said Monday, “since the United States has struck the positions of the forces who have dealt heavy blows to the [ISIS] terrorists over the past years.”

The U.S. strikes by F-15 Strike Eagles included three targets in western Iraq and two in eastern Syria that were command-and-control facilities or weapons stockpiles for the militia, according to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. Both Mr. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed the president on the strikes on Sunday, and the two men also presented more options for military strikes if the president deems them necessary.

Mr. Pompeo specifically said the Iran-backed militia had targeted U.S. troops based in Iraq, leading to the strikes. The U.S. has roughly 5,000 troops still stationed in Iraq. Some prominent lawmakers said the administration was right to respond with a show of force.

“Very glad to see the U.S. strike back against Iran/Hezbollah proxies in response to the attack on American service members in Iraq,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, late Sunday. “The only language Iran understands is force.”

But the administration already is facing harsh diplomatic blowback.

Iraqi officials — many of whom are eager for the U.S. to withdraw military forces from the country — blasted the strikes. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said Monday that he tried to stop the U.S. offensive but was met with “insistence” from Washington that it must be carried out. Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd considered a moderate on Iraq’s sectarian political spectrum, called the airstrikes “unacceptable” and a “violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”

Iranian and Iranian proxy threats to U.S. personnel in Iraq have been a near-constant concern for the Pentagon over the past year. Last summer, the U.S. sent additional personnel and military equipment to the Middle East after receiving credible threats that Iran was targeting American forces in Iraq.

But some specialists say the only way for Washington to guarantee that U.S. forces won’t become targets is to pull them out of the Middle East entirely.

“The U.S. has no good reason to remain militarily involved in a region of diminishing strategic importance,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank that advocates a more restrained foreign policy.

“Keeping large numbers of U.S. forces in the Middle East leaves them vulnerable to attacks from countries and groups who could not otherwise threaten them,” he said. “There is no justifying rationale for such a risk.”

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