U.S. strike in Baghdad kills key militia commander, officials say

BAGHDAD — A U.S. airstrike in Baghdad on Wednesday killed a militia commander suspected of plotting attacks on American troops throughout the region, officials said, drawing swift denunciation from the Iraqi military and intensifying calls for ending its partnership with Washington.

The operation targeted a key figure in an Iranian-backed group, Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the Biden administration has blamed for scores of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since October, officials said in a statement. American positions have been hit with drones, rockets or missiles at least 168 times in that span. An attack that killed three Army reservists last week in Jordan was the first in this stretch of violence to turn deadly.

U.S. military officials said Wednesday’s strike was carried out about 9:30 p.m. “in response to the attacks on U.S. service members” and resulted in the death of a militia commander “responsible for directly planning and participating” in those attacks. The statement, which does not identify the individual who was killed, said there were no initial indications of civilian casualties.

It follows a wave of American airstrikes Friday night in Iraq and Syria aimed at 85 targets associated with the militias. President Biden said then that retaliation for the killing of U.S. soldiers “began today” and would “continue at times and places of our choosing.”

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group that includes Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militia groups affiliated with Iran, announced Wednesday the death of Abu Baqir al-Saedi, a senior leader affiliated with the organization. Kata’ib Hezbollah posted a picture of Saedi online along with images of a vehicle that was struck.

“We swear we won’t be silent,” text accompanying one image read. The group reiterated its demand for an end to the “U.S. occupation.” U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, but the two sides began formal talks in January aimed at winding down the presence of U.S.-led coalition troops in the country.

Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a militia that has claimed several attacks on U.S. forces, called on the Iraqi government to act and vowed to retaliate.

“This violation will not be the last if there is no strict and firm official position from the Iraqi government,” the group said. “These crimes will not go unpunished.”

The U.S. military carried out an airstrike in Baghdad on Jan. 4 against Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, killing its deputy commander of operations in the Baghdad region, Mushtaq Talib al-Saidi, also known as Abu Taqwa.

Loud booms were heard across the capital again on Wednesday night. The Iraqi military later announced that a civilian car had been targeted in the Mashtal neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, killing all of its occupants. Crowds later gathered around the blackened vehicle, a Jeep, and at one point security officers removed a body from underneath the car.

Wednesday’s strike — on a busy shopping boulevard in the country’s capital — appeared certain to inflame ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

After the United States claimed responsibility for the killing, an Iraqi military spokesman called the strike “a clear aggression and violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” Iraq would “hold the American side and the coalition forces responsible for the repercussions of these dangerous actions that threaten the security and safety of the country,” the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Tahseen Al Khafaji, said in a statement.

The government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani had condemned the previous round of U.S. strikes targeting the militias that are part of Iraq’s security services. Sudani, who visited wounded militia members in the hospital, has also warned that Iraq should not serve as a stage for the conflict between Iran and the United States.

Militias organized under the Islamic Resistance in Iraq have framed their attacks on U.S. personnel as a protest of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and American support for it. But leaders of Kata’ib Hezbollah pledged on Jan. 30 to suspend its attacks “in order to prevent embarrassment of the Iraqi government.”

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said during a news briefing Tuesday that U.S. officials know the recent attacks on American personnel bear “the fingerprints of KH” and similar groups, and that they will be held responsible.

Administration officials have said they will take all necessary measures to protect U.S. troops. On Sunday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby implored the Iraqi government to “move with more alacrity” in addressing the threats posed to roughly 3,500 American military personnel who are based in the country and neighboring Syria.

“Three Americans were killed, three troops; three families now are grieving,” Kirby told Fox News, referencing the Jan. 28 attack in Jordan. “The president’s not going to sit back and idly just take that. We’re going to respond.”

The Biden administration has opted for a strategy that falls short of holding Tehran itself accountable for supporting militant groups in the region, said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Rather, he said, the U.S. approach to striking targets in Iraq appears to seek a balance between upsetting its partners and its adversaries.

“It appears that the U.S. is willing to accept the political risk of Baghdad growing increasingly less tolerant, at least in the public space, of a U.S. military presence,” Lord said, “versus the risk of a broader regional escalation by targeting Iran directly.”

Lamothe and Horton reported from Washington.

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