Washington: The US has launched airstrikes in Iraq targeting the Iranian-backed Shia militia members believed responsible for a rocket attack that killed and wounded American and British troops, military officials have confirmed.
One US official said multiple strikes targeted Kataib Hezbollah weapons facilities inside Iraq late Thursday (Friday morning AEDT). The strikes were a partnered operation with the British, that official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because operations were still going on.
The US strikes followed an attack on the Taji military base in Iraq, north of Baghdad, where two American personnel and one from Britain were killed and about a dozen people were wounded.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the US would hold the perpetrators of the attack accountable.Credit:AP
No Australians were injured in the attack on Wednesday and it is unknown whether Australian Defence Force troops were in the vicinity when the 18 small rockets hit the camp.
The US military said the 107mm Katyusha rockets were fired from a truck launcher that was found by Iraqi security forces near the base after the attack.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon earlier Thursday that President Donald Trump had given him the authority to take whatever action he deemed necessary.
"We're going to take this one step at a time, but we've got to hold the perpetrators accountable," Esper said. "You don't get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it."
At the White House, Trump had also hinted that a US counterpunch could be coming, telling reporters, "We'll see what the response is." And Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters the US knows "with a high degree of certainty" who launched the attack.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, the top US commander for the Middle East, told senators the deaths of US and coalition troops created a "red line" for the US, but said he didn't think Iran has "a good understanding of where our red line is."
Asked if any counterattack could include a strike inside Iran, Esper said, "We are focused on the group that we believe perpetrated this in Iraq."
US officials have not publicly said what group they believe launched the rocket attack, but Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia militia group, was the likely perpetrator. And the U.S. strikes, which came in the middle of the night in Iraq, targeted that group.
Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for a late December rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a US contractor, prompting American military strikes in response.
That in turn led to protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad. They were followed on January 3 by a US airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful military officer, General Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a member.
In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran launched a massive ballistic missile attack on January 8, at al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops.
McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning that the killing of Soleimani and the increase in US troops and assets in the region has made clear to Iran that the US will defend its interests there. He said the US has re-established a level of deterrence for state-on-state attacks by Iran.
However, he said: "What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly again us. That is a far more difficult area to deter."
On Thursday, Esper and Milley said they spoke with their British counterparts about the attack, but declined to provide details.
Asked why none of the rockets was intercepted, Milley said there are no systems on the base capable of defending against that type of attack.
He also said the 14 injured personnel were a mix of US and allied troops as well as contractors, and they will also be monitored for possible traumatic brain injury in the wake of the blasts.
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