Washington confirms retaliatory strike on pro-Iran militia in Baghdad—follows over 100 attacks targeting US forces

On Dec. 8. Austin spoke with Sudani and advised him that Harakat al-Nujaba and Kata’ib Hizbollah "are responsible for most of the attacks against Coalition personnel."
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Washington, D.C., Sept. 6, 2022. (Photo: DOD/U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza)
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Washington, D.C., Sept. 6, 2022. (Photo: DOD/U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) –  At the Pentagon and State Department, officials confirmed on Thursday that the U.S. had responded to repeated attacks from pro-Iranian militias in Iraq with a drone attack that had targeted high-ranking members of Harakat al-Nujaba.

The group was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization in 2019, and already eleven years before that, its leader, Akram Abbas al-Kabi, was designated as a terrorist. 

That was Sept. 2008, when George W. Bush was president. Over 15 years have passed, and the group, which has particularly close ties to Iran, has not only survived, but maintains the capability to attack U.S. forces.

The Baghdad government protested Thursday’s retaliatory strike, as a spokesman for Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani denounced it as “a dangerous escalation and assault on Iraq.”

But as James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador in Iraq, as well as Turkey, recently explained to Kurdistan 24, Sudani does not control the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. They “take orders from Tehran, not Baghdad,” he said.

Read More: Amb. James Jeffrey: Iran is strategic threat to region

U.S. Strike: First in Baghdad, First Against Harakat al-Nujaba—Despite Austin’s Warning

Thursday’s attack occurred at noon local time. It targeted Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a.k.a. Abu Taqwa, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters later that day. 

Jawari, whom Ryder described as “a Harakat al-Nujaba leader,” was “actively involved in planning and carrying out attacks against American personnel.”

Ryder described the U.S. strike as “self-defense” and stressed that no civilians were injured, although a second person, “an associate” of Jawari, was also killed. 

Indeed, Harakat al-Nujaba had warning from the Pentagon, but it may well have disregarded the subtle signal, given the Biden administration’s previous inaction. 

In early December, Austin spoke with Sudani. The U.S. read-out of their discussion identified Harakat al-Nujaba, along with Kata’ib Hizbollah, as the two militias most responsible for attacking U.S. forces.

Indeed, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria have targeted troops from the anti-ISIS Coalition over 100 times since mid-October, using the war in Gaza as a pretext for the accelerated rate of their assaults.

As the Institute for the Study of War has said, “Iran and its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling US forces from the Middle East.”

But the attacks have met a minimal U.S. response, prompting criticism from various quarters. That includes Amb. Jeffrey in his interview with Kurdistan 24, cited above. 

It also includes The Wall Street Journal, which, on Dec. 26, published an editorial entitled, “Biden Endangers U.S. Troops,” and which noted, “Three more American service members are hurt, as U.S. bases became enemy drone catchers.”

Until Thursday, the U.S. had responded only twice to those attacks: one strike on a militia base south of Baghdad on Nov. 22; a second strike in response to a series of attacks, including on Erbil Airport, on Christmas Day.

Both of those strikes were against Kata’ib Hizbollah, even as the Pentagon, by the time of the second attack, had sent Harakat al-Nujaba a subtle warning. 

Despite the limited U.S. response to the many attacks, following Thursday’s strike, Defense Department journalists peppered Ryder with questions about whether the Pentagon had a legitimate reason to target Jawari. It was as if they had given little thought to the consequences of not responding to such attacks.

In two very limited respects, Thursday’s strike did mark an increase in the robustness of the Biden administration’s response to the militia attacks.

It was the first U.S. retaliatory strike in Baghdad itself. It was also the first attack that targeted Harakat al-Nujaba. 

On Dec. 8, following a flurry of militia assaults—a mortar attack on the U.S. embassy and then other attacks on military bases hosting troops from the anti-ISIS Coalition, including in Erbil—Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Sudani.

Austin welcomed Sudani’s statement, expressed earlier that day, in which he denounced the attacks and vowed “to pursue the perpetrators.” 

Read More: U.S. Cites Iran, as Militias Attack Numerous Sites in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and Syria

But, most notably, the U.S. read-out of the discussion between Austin and Sudani included the point that Austin had conveyed the conclusion from U.S. intelligence that “the Iranian-backed militant groups Kata’ib Hizbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, both designated terrorist organizations, are responsible for most of the attacks against Coalition personnel,” while he had affirmed “that the United States reserves the right to respond decisively against those groups.”

And that is pretty much what the U.S. did on Thursday.