U.S. officials describe a series of airstrikes as retaliation against Iran. American warplanes struck five targets in Iraq and Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that all of the attacks targeted a militia linked to Iran.
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MIKE POMPEO: We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.
INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. Tom, good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How was this militia, according to the U.S., putting Americans in jeopardy?
BOWMAN: Well, it's said this militia called Kata'ib Hezbollah has been, for months now, firing mortars and rockets at U.S. forces at locations throughout Iraq — around Baghdad; around Kirkuk in the north, where this American contractor was killed; and also down in the southwest around al-Asad Air Base.
And — now the strikes, Steve, were usually not close enough — sometimes a kilometer away and really never caused any serious injuries. But going back to May, Secretary Mike Pompeo abruptly canceled a trip to Germany and flew to Baghdad because, I'm told, intelligence showed the possibility of a large attack on U.S. forces, presumably by these militias. That did not happen, of course. But the firing by the militias continued, and some in the U.S. military were pushing for punishing responses even before this contractor was killed.
INSKEEP: Does the United States view this harassment — or whatever the term is — by this militia as part of Iran's larger conflict with the United States?
BOWMAN: I think they definitely do. Again, these strikes have been going on for some time. Iran has been really pushed to the limit by the U.S. sanctions, also the scrapping of the Iranian nuclear deal. So there's a sense of lashing out by Iran against American forces in Iraq. And this is a particular concern because you have roughly 5,000 troops in Iraq, and they could be easily hit by these Iranian-backed militias.
INSKEEP: So when the American F-15s appeared overhead over these five targets, what did they strike?
BOWMAN: They struck five sites overall — two strikes in southeast Syria and three in western Iraq near the border town of al-Qa'im. They hit command and control sites, some weapons caches in both countries. And I'm told the strikes on the weapons caches led to massive secondary explosions. The death toll of these Iranian-backed militia fighters has been put at around 20, but that could rise.
INSKEEP: Now, is this militia Kata'ib Hezbollah or Iran itself responding in any way?
BOWMAN: Iran put out a statement basically calling this American aggression, American terrorism. It said it was — the U.S. was striking Iraqi forces on Iraqi soil. It never mentioned any support from Iran. I haven't seen anything yet from the militias. The Revolutionary Guard in Iran has basically said, you know, we could strike more American troops in Iraq.
INSKEEP: What are the political implications of the U.S. striking inside Iraq here at a moment when there are all these protests against Iraq's government, partly about Iran's influence inside Iraq?
BOWMAN: Well, there could be huge implications here with regard to Iraq — again, where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed. Secretary Mark Esper, the defense secretary, notified Iraqi officials about the impending strikes. They oppose them. They said it violated the country's sovereignty. And in Iraq's Parliament, you're likely to see lawmakers who lean toward Iran question whether U.S. troops should remain at all. So the U.S. strikes, Steve, could be the beginning of a bitter political fight within Iraq.
INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks as always for your reporting.
BOWMAN: OK. You're welcome.