Top general: Iran threat 'remains very high' after US strikes on proxy militia in Iraq

Top general: Iran threat 'remains very high' after US strikes on proxy militia in Iraq
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The top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Friday the threat from Iran remains high even as he touted the success of retaliatory U.S. airstrikes on an Iran-backed militia in Iraq that officials blamed for killing two U.S. troops this week.

“We are confident that we have effectively destroyed these facilities,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the leader of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at a briefing Friday. “We assess success at all sites, and we’re very comfortable with the level of damage that we were able to achieve.”

While McKenzie said he thinks the strikes "are going to send a signal that we’re not going to tolerate" attacks from Iranian proxy forces, he said the threat from Tehran "remains very high."

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“I think tensions have actually not gone down," he said. "I still think they are actively seeking ways to achieve destabilization that would allow them to escape the strictures of the maximum pressure campaign.”

The Pentagon announced Thursday night that it conducted retaliatory airstrikes against five weapons storage facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.

All strikes were carried out by manned aircraft that returned to base safely, McKenzie said Friday. He declined to elaborate on the type of weapons fired and where the aircraft are based.

McKenzie said each target stored weapons that “would enable lethal operations against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq” and that the strikes were “designed to destroy Iranian supplied advanced conventional weapons.”

The strikes were done in retaliation for a Wednesday night rocket attack U.S. officials blamed on Kataib Hezbollah that killed two U.S. troops and a British service member.

The Pentagon on Friday identified the slain Americans as Army Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, of Hanford, Calif., and Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28, of Owasso, Okla. The British have identified their service member as combat medic Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon.

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The Iraqi military on Friday condemned the U.S. strikes, saying the unilateral action violated Iraqi sovereignty. Five Iraqi security force members and one Iraqi civilian were killed, it added.

McKenzie could not confirm fatalities, saying that poor weather conditions are delaying that assessment. Still, he said U.S. officials “expect there are going to be fatalities,” even as he said “we believe the collateral damage is going to be very low.”

He also said he has “no information” on whether a commander from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was killed in the strike, as has been rumored on social media.

Asked about Iraq’s anger over the strikes, McKenzie said U.S. officials consulted the Iraqis after Wednesday night’s rocket attack and they “knew a response was coming.”

“These locations that we struck are clear locations of terrorist bases. If Iraqis were there and Iraqi military forces were there, I would say it’s probably not a good idea to position yourself with Kataib Hezbollah in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members,” McKenzie said.

Kataib Hezbollah is part of an umbrella group in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). While the U.S. considers it an Iranian proxy threat, Iraq has been working to fold the PMFs into its security forces.

McKenzie said he couldn’t say whether Tehran directed Wednesday’s attack, but added that “morally, there’s a very strong connection” between Kataib Hezbollah and Iran. 

U.S. officials previously blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack in December that struck a base near Kirkuk, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. service members. The attack set off a series of events that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war.

The U.S. military responded to the December attack by striking five Kataib Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria. That led to supporters of the militia storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

That, in turn, was followed by a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran then retaliated with a missile strike on Iraqi military bases with U.S. troops that gave more than 100 Americans brain injuries.

Wednesday’s attack fell on what would have been Soleimani’s 63rd birthday. McKenzie acknowledged the timing of the attack, but refrained from ascribing motive.

As tensions with Iran remain high, McKenzie said Central Command will keep two aircraft carriers in region and is moving Patriot missile defense systems into Iraq. Patriots are not designed to protect against the type of rockets launched Wednesday, but rather missiles such as the ones Iran used in January.

McKenzie would not rule out further action, saying “we’ll continue to evaluate the situation going forward.” He also said the United States is continuing to work with the British on a way forward.

There are a “variety of other sites” the United States could strike, he added. The United States has not struck them yet while balancing “restraint” with “attempting to send a strong enough message,” he said.

“If it doesn’t work, we’ve got plenty more places we can go and go to work,” he said. “And I’m confident we’ll do that.”