Repeated US strikes against Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq are pushing the government to end the mission of US troops in the country, Iraqi prime minister's military spokesman Yahya Rasool said on Thursday.
The statement came after the US military conducted a precision missile strike Wednesday night eliminating a top commander of a prominent Iran-backed militia responsible for the deaths of three US troops in January.
The targeted killing is the second major US attack since President Joe Biden authorized a retaliatory military campaign against Iran and its proxies. The first major attack was launched on February 3, hitting more than 85 Iran-related targets in Iraq and Syria.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed the Wednesday attack, posting on X that it was “in response to the attacks on US service members” and that the target was “a Kataib Hezbollah commander responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces in the region.”
Sources in Iraq –and militia officials– named the commander as Wissam Mohammed “Abu Bakr” al-Saadi, in charge of Kataib Hezbollah’s operations in Syria.
Abu Baqir al-Saadi was once a bodyguard to Kataib’s founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. Muhandes was killed alongside IRGC top man Qasem Soleimani in another US drone strike early January 2020.
CENTCOM said there were “no indications of collateral damage or civilian casualties”. Still, followers of the militia at the scene were angry with the US and with the Iraqi government, which they believe is failing to take a stance against the Americans who “violate Iraqi sovereignty.”
The attack may further escalate the situation in the Middle East, where Iran and its proxies have been targeting US forces regularly since Israel began its onslaught in Gaza in response to Hamas’ rampage of Israeli border communities.
Following the large-scale US airstrike on Iraq and Syria, Kataib Hezbollah had announced that it was suspending attacks on American troops to avoid “embarrassing the Iraqi government”. That announcement may now be voided, as Kataib and other Iran-affiliated armed groups consider avenging Abu Bakr al-Saadi's death.
“These crimes will not go unpunished,” the militia Al-Nujaba movement threatened in a statement. .Several other groups from several countries in the region –all affiliated with Iran– also issued statements, threatening retaliation.
Officials from the Biden administration repeatedly said after last week’s retaliatory attack on Iraq and Syria that it was only the beginning and there were more to come. It’s unclear how far the administration would go while maintaining its view to avoid war with Iran at all costs.
Biden’s critics are adamant he should abandon that policy if he wants success in dealing with Iran.
“They say we don’t want to escalate anything with Iran,” Senator Bill Hagerty of foreign relations committee told Bloomberg. “You take escalation off the table, you take a big tool of deterrence off the table. We need to come back to a strong diplomatic, economic, and military position to deal with Iran. It needs to be consistent.
“We’ve been extraordinarily inconsistent in dealing with Iran and its proxies,” Hagerty continued. “We have failed to enforce the sanctions on Iran that would’ve stopped the flow of funds to that nation…"
Iran’s oil revenues have more than doubled since Biden abandoned Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’. This increase has coincided with Iran’s expansion of its missile program, as well as its growing, blatant support for armed groups like Hamas, Kataib Hezbollah, and the Houthis, which have proven most active and effective with their disruption of maritime trade at the Red Sea.
All these groups cite the crisis in Gaza as their main cause. It’s unclear how they would react to the Israeli prime minister rejecting the terms of a potential hostage-release agreement with Hamas that could have led to a permanent ceasefire. The war would continue until “absolute victory,” Netanyahu said. That would likely mean a direct confrontation between Iran and the United State.