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Source: Washington Post

Jan 21, 2024

Iranian-linked militants strike Iraqi base housing U.S. troops

By Justine McDaniel, Susannah George, Annabelle Timsit, Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim

Iranian-linked militants attacked an air base housing U.S. and Iraqi troops in western Iraq, U.S. Central Command said — the latest incident targeting American forces in the region as the Israel-Gaza war continues to stoke tensions.

Ballistic missiles and rockets targeted Ain al-Asad Air Base, in Iraq’s Anbar province, around 6:30 p.m. local time Saturday, Centcom said on social media. According to Centcom, “most” of the missiles were intercepted by the base’s air defense systems, but some “impacted on the base.”

A number of U.S. personnel were being evaluated for traumatic brain injuries, and at least one Iraqi service member was wounded, Centcom said, adding: “Damage assessments are ongoing.” Reuters reported that U.S. troops suffered “minor injuries” in the attack. The Defense Department referred The Washington Post on Sunday to Centcom, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition including Iranian-linked militias, claimed responsibility for the attack against Ain al-Asad. In a statement Saturday, the group said the strike was part of its broader resistance against the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

The attack comes amid a broader increase in strikes against U.S. troops based in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for Washington’s support of Israel and its military operation in Gaza, which the territory’s Health Ministry said has killed over 25,000 and injured over 62,600.

The war has fueled concerns about regional spillover affecting countries including Yemen, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan — and the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq as part of efforts to combat the Islamic State terrorist group. There have been more than 130 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militant groups since Oct. 17, according to the Pentagon.

The attacks have thrust the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani into the middle of the growing tensions between Tehran and Washington. They also suggest that an unofficial détente with Iraq’s Iranian-linked militants — who had halted attacks on U.S. targets that they began after President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 — has come to an end.

The pause in strikes on bases housing American troops began in October 2022 with the appointment of Sudani and ended with the start of the war in Gaza.

After U.S. forces conducted what the Pentagon called a “self-defense” strike in Baghdad targeting a leader of an Iranian-backed militia on Jan. 4, al-Sudani’s office said it would take steps to evict U.S. troops, Reuters reported.

However, a few days after the strike, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters he was “not aware of any plans” to withdraw American troops or “of any notifications by the Iraqi government to the Department of Defense.”

“We’re there at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Ryder said.

The spate of attacks has also caused tensions between Iraq and Iran. Last week, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired ballistic missiles at what it said were members of the Islamic State group in Syria and the “espionage headquarters” of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, according to statements published by state media.

In response, Iraq recalled its ambassador from Tehran, and al-Sudani called it “an act of aggression against Iraq and a setback to the historical relationship with Iran.” Iraq and Kurdish officials denied Iran’s claims about the alleged spy site, and the Israeli prime minister’s press office declined to comment.

Earlier on Saturday, an explosion in the Syrian capital killed five Iranian military advisers, according to the IRGC, which accused Israel of invading Damascus.

When reached asked about the Damascus strike, the Israeli military said it does not comment on foreign reports. Iranian state media reported that Tehran called the strike a “desperate attempt to spread instability” in the region and said it has the right to respond.

The IRGC said that the attack was carried out by “fighter jets” and that “a number of Syrian forces” were among the dead.

Video of the aftermath Saturday showed smoke rising above the city. Syrian state media said the blast struck a residential building in the western Damascus neighborhood of Mezzeh that is home to diplomatic missions and aid agencies.

Kyle Melnick and Niha Masih contributed to this report.

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