(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. air strikes on five bases in Iraq and Syria used by an Iranian-backed militia sent a warning to Tehran that President Donald Trump’s patience has its limits.
“One of the things that we want to emphasize is that this was a defensive action that was designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s Iran envoy, said in a telephone briefing Monday. “We’re also working on the mission set of restoring deterrence against Iranian aggression.”
Sunday’s rare direct strike on an Iranian proxy came at an especially tense time and held the potential for escalation. The U.S. and Iran are locked in a standoff over the Trump administration’s crippling economic offensive against Tehran -- meant to force it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal Washington has abandoned -- and the Islamic Republic’s suspected reprisals.
Rocket assaults on or near Iraqi installations that host American troops and personnel have occurred since the fall, and Pentagon officials have expressed increasing concern about Iranian involvement. An American contractor was killed in such an attack on Friday, and several U.S. service personnel were wounded.
‘Pretty Darn Patient’
“They took a strike at an American facility,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Monday on “Fox and Friends.” “President Trump’s been pretty darn patient, and he’s made clear at the same time that when Americans’ lives were at risk we would respond, and that’s what the Department of Defense did yesterday.”
Iraq has the potential to be a military flashpoint between the U.S. and Iran. U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq to fight Islamic State militants amid thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias controlled by officials in Baghdad sympathetic to Tehran.
While a direct U.S.-Iran conflict remains unlikely, the latest episode “marginally increases” the risk, Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group, said in a note on Monday.
“There is both a clear willingness by Iran to assume greater regional risks and extract concessions from the U.S.,” Kamel and colleagues wrote. “On the U.S. side, Washington’s policy process is broken and there is a significant risk of miscalculation.”
Iran condemned the attack on the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia’s bases as “an aggression against Iraqi soil and a clear example of terrorism,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported, quoting Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Vowing revenge, Kata’ib Hezbollah said in a statement, “Let Trump know that he will pay dearly in Iraq and the countries where his criminal forces are present.”
Iraq’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it will summon the U.S. envoy to Baghdad to express its condemnation over the airstrikes as a “blatant” violation of its sovereignty. Iraq’s parliament speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi, denounced the raid even as he urged all parties to display restraint.
Kata’ib Hezbollah’s parent group reported that 25 fighters were killed and 51 were wounded. The militia nominally falls under the command of the Iraqi armed forces and fought Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army and the U.S.-led coalition. But it has also been armed by Iran and is assisting it in ferrying arms to Syria, where it is propping up President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper flew to Florida on Sunday to brief Trump on activities of the previous three days.
Esper said in a statement that F-15 jets attacked five targets, three in western Iraq and two in eastern Syria that were either command control facilities or weapons caches. “The strikes were successful, the pilots and aircraft returned back to base safely,” he said.
(Updates with analyst comment in seventh paragraph)
--With assistance from Polina Noskova, Zaid Sabah and Justin Sink.
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