- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2020

U.S. forces carried out airstrikes Thursday night against Iran-backed militants in Iraq that the Pentagon blamed for a rocket attack a day earlier that killed two American service members and a British army soldier at a base north of Baghdad.

U.S. officials said the counterstrikes targeted weapons facilities run by the Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah in developments that marked a sharp escalation between Washington and Tehran after roughly two months without major clashes in Iraq.

“The United States conducted defensive precision strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH) facilities across Iraq,” the Pentagon said in a statement, adding that the strikes “targeted five weapon storage facilities to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks” on U.S., British and other coalition forces supporting Iraq’s sovereignty.

Hours earlier, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that an Iran-backed militia group was most likely responsible for a rocket attack Wednesday that killed the two Americans and a Briton and wounded 14 others at Camp Taji, a coalition base north of the Iraqi capital.

The Trump administration has for months suggested that any Iranian, or Iran-backed militia attacks against Americans in the region would cross a red line and warrant harsh U.S. military retaliation, but Mr. Esper offered few specifics in his remarks.

He said “all options” were on the table for a possible counterstrike but declined to identify what militia group may be targeted. “We know they are backed by Iran, we know that for sure,” the defense secretary said. He added that the U.S. “will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests or our allies.”

The subsequent airstrikes targeting Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities on Thursday night came two months after the U.S. and Iran were at the brink of all-out war following an American strike that killed Iran’s most powerful military officer near Baghdad International Airport.

The Jan. 3 strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a member.

The Trump administration said the Soleimani strike was warranted because the Iranian commander was plotting attacks against U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in the region. U.S. officials had also found that Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for a late December rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. contractor.

In response to the U.S. strikes that killed Soleimani and Muhandis, Iran launched ballistic missile attacks on Jan. 8 that hit Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq, resulting in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops stationed there.

At the height of the January tensions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration would target Iran’s leaders directly if Tehran or its proxies carried out any further attacks against American personnel or interests. At the time, Mr. Pompeo said past U.S. strategy of retaliating against Iranian proxies were ineffective, suggesting the Trump administration was embracing a new strategy of confronting Tehran directly.

However, Thursday night’s strikes appeared to represent a tit-for-tat between U.S. forces and the Iran-backed proxies in Iraq. “These strikes were defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMG) who continue to attack bases hosting … coalition forces,” the Pentagon statement said.

It went on to make clear that the U.S. airstrikes were in retaliation for a series of recent rocket attacks by various Iran-backed Shiite militia groups against U.S. and coalition personnel, as well as Iraqi government security forces — incidents that had been spiked by Wednesday’s attack that killed two Americans and a Briton.

At about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, a barrage of 15 truck-mounted 107 mm Katyusha rockets were fired toward the Camp Taji military base, located about 20 miles north of Baghdad.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command commander who leads American operations in the Middle East, told a Senate panel Thursday that Kata’ib Hezbollah “is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces.”

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that “we have a good idea based on forensics where it was fired and who did the firing.”

“We were able to capture the truck,” he said.

Pentagon officials said those wounded in Wednesday’s attack — mainly American, British and Polish personnel — had injuries consistent with shrapnel. Some of the U.S. and allied troops who were under the rocket bombardment may eventually be found to have traumatic brain injuries, Gen. Milley said.

“It was a serious attack,” he said.

British Defense Ministry officials identified the soldier who was killed as 26-year-old Lance Corp. Brodie Gillon, a combat medic assigned to the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, a reserve unit in the British army. She volunteered in the Irish Guards Battle Group for their 2020 combat deployment to Iraq.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Lance Cpl. Gillon was a “shining example of what our armed forces and reserves stand for.”

U.S. officials have not identified the two American service members who were killed in the attack.

Trump’s war powers

The latest developments are playing out against a backdrop of political debate in Washington over President Trump’s legal authority for military strikes against Iran and its proxies.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a war powers resolution this week aimed at limiting the president’s authority to use force against Iran without explicit congressional approval.

The House made its move after the Republican-controlled Senate took a surprising stand last month against the White House’s handling of escalating tensions with Iran by approving its own version of the resolution after receiving support from several Republicans.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, “directs the President to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces for hostilities against the Islamic Republic of Iran or any part of its government or military, unless explicitly authorized by a declaration of war or specific authorization for use of military force against Iran.”

The bill includes language to authorize the president to take measures to protect the U.S. from an “imminent attack” without express approval from Congress but would otherwise sharply limit his authorities.

Mr. Kaine, who is just one of two senators who serves on both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, said having both chambers pass the resolution “has made clear that we shouldn’t be engaged in hostilities with Iran without a vote of Congress.”

“This legislation doesn’t prevent the President from defending the United States against imminent attack … [but] demands that the decision of whether or not we go on offense and send our troops into harm’s way should only be made after serious deliberation and a vote of Congress,” he said in a statement.

The House version was approved by a 227-186 vote. It had the support of six Republicans, including Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Tom Reed of New York.

The bill will soon head to the president’s desk, where it is expected to be vetoed.

This is the second move by lawmakers attempting to restrict Mr. Trump’s war authorities. Last year, the House and Senate approved a war powers resolution to block U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war.

Mr. Trump vetoed that measure.

• Mike Glenn contributed to this report.

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