U.S. Strikes Iran-Backed Militias in Iraq, Syria

On June 27, the United States conducted airstrikes against three targets operated by two Iraqi militias—Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada—that are trained, armed, funded and sometimes directed by Iran. F-15 and F-16 fighters targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. On June 28, President Joe Biden told reporters, “I directed last night's airstrikes targeting sites used by Iranian-backed militia groups responsible for recent attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq.” In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that the United States “took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation - but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.”

US strikesThe exact death toll was unclear; Iraqi military officials told The Associated Press that four men were killed in Syria, while a Britain-based monitor reported that at least seven were killed. Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada said that four of its fighters were killed. All of the targets were near the Abu Kamal-al Qaim crossing along the Iraq-Syria border, an important weapons transfer hub for Iran and its proxies. Many of the weapons have then been sent to or stored at the Imam Ali Base, which was built by an Iran-run network inside the Syrian border to store weapons and military equipment as well as house fighters.

Iran condemned the strikes and warned the United States to not interfere in the Middle East. “What the United States is doing is disrupting regional security, and one of the victims of this disrupted regional security will be the United States itself in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

The U.S. strikes were in response to a string of at least six drone attacks attributed to Iraqi militias since April. The attacks included:

  • On April 14, a drone carrying explosives targeted a CIA hangar inside the complex at Erbil International Airport in northern Iraq. No casualties were reported.
  • On April 28, a drone attacked Balad Air Base north of Baghdad, pro-Iran media sources claimed. No casualties were reported.
  • On May 8, a drone attacked Ain al Asad Air Base in central Iraq. No casualties were reported.
  • On June 6, Iraqi air defenses shot down two drones that approached Ain al Assad. No casualties were reported. 
  • On June 9, three drones attacked the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center near the Baghdad airport, the Iraqi military reported. One drone was shot down. No casualties were reported.
  • On June 15, Iraqi air defense shot down two drones, one in Baghdad and one in a nearby suburb, the Iraqi military reported. No casualties were reported
  • On June 26, three drones carrying explosives hit a house near the new location of the U.S. Consulate in Erbil. Another drone landed in an unpopulated area. No casualties were reported.

The two groups targeted by the United States were part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group formed in mid-2014 to combine more than 60 old and new militias after ISIS captured a third of Iraq. Many of the PMF militias had been trained, armed or backed by Iran. In 2016, the PMF were formally integrated into Iraq’s security forces, but some militias are only nominally under Baghdad’s control.

Related Content: U.S. Hits Iran-backed Militia for Third Time

In a statement, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission (IRCC), an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, pledged retaliation. “We will avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs against the perpetrators of this heinous crime and with God’s help, we will make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge.” The IRCC includes the two militias hit by U.S. warplanes.

Iraq condemned the U.S. attacks as a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.” Major General Yahya Rasool, military spokesman for Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi, said that “Iraq reiterates its refusal to be an arena for settling scores.” He appeared to be referencing the conflict between Iran-backed militias and U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

The Fatah Coalition, a pro-Iran bloc in Iraq’s parliament that includes the political wings of some PMF militias, also condemned the U.S. strikes. “The targeting of the PMF affiliates confirmed the futility of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The Iraqi government must immediately and without delay must act to expel the foreign troops from the country, especially the Americans,” it said in a statement. The Fatah Coalition includes 48 of the 329 seats in parliament; it is the second largest bloc of lawmakers.

Related Content: U.S. Strikes Iran-Backed Militias in Syria

The attack was the second by the Biden administration against Iranian-backed militants. The first was on February 25, when the United States struck several facilities near Abu Kamal used by Iran-backed militias. In June, Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration "must always take decisive action" to protect U.S. forces, but he requested more information about the legal justification for the strikes. Senator Chris Murphy was concerned that the repeated retaliatory strikes could qualify as a pattern of hostilities under the War Powers Act.

 

Militias Respond to Airstrikes

U.S. and partner forces and installations in Iraq and Syria were attacked at least six times since the airstrikes:

  • On June 28, U.S. forces in northeast Syria came under fire. Rockets were fired at a facility housing U.S. troops near the al Omar oil field, but no casualties were reported. U.S. forces returned fire in self-defense. No group claimed responsibility, but social media channels used by Iran-backed militias circulated video footage of the attack. 
  • On July 5, three rockets landed on the perimeter of Ain al Asad airbase, Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesperson for the anti-ISIS coalition, tweeted. No casualties were reported and the damage was "being assessed." No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, Reuters reported.
  • On July 6, a drone carrying explosives hit Erbil International Airport which hosts a U.S. base, Kurdish security forces reported. The attack caused no injuries or damage except for a fire extinguished by local authorities. Col. Marotto confirmed via Twitter that "one UAS [Unmanned Aerial System] impacted in vicinity of Erbil Air Base." Telegram channels affiliated with Shiite militias claimed that 20 rockets and three drones were used in the attack, but the Pentagon dismissed the social media posts as exaggeration.
  • On July 7, 14 rockets were fired at Ain Al Asad airbase, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition said. The rockets landed “on the base & perimeter which triggered force protection defensive measures,” spokesman Col. Marotto tweeted. Two base personnel sustained minor injuries, he added. The rockets also damaged local homes and a mosque, according to the Iraqi military
  • On July 7, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) "foiled" a drone attack on the al Omar oilfield in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, an SDF spokesperson tweeted. No casualties or damage was reported. 
  • On July 8, two Katyusha rockets landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. A third rocket hit a residential area, the Iraqi military said. A civilian vehicle was damaged. 

The following are statements from the Pentagon, Senator Menendez and Senator Chris Murphy, with a timeline of U.S. strikes on Iraqi militias.

 

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby on June 27, 2021: “At President Biden's direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region. The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq. Specifically, the U.S. strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries. Several Iran-backed militia groups, including Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), used these facilities.

“As demonstrated by this evening's strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel. Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the President directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks. We are in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq for the sole purpose of assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in their efforts to defeat ISIS. The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation - but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.

“As a matter of international law, the United States acted pursuant to its right of self-defense. The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and appropriately limited in scope. As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq.”

 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on June 28, 2021: “With regard to the strike last night, at the President’s direction, U.S. military forces conducted airstrikes against facilities used by Iranian-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region. They targeted facilities used by groups responsible for recent attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq. Specifically, they targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria, one location in Iraq, both with – very close to the border between the countries.  Several Iran-backed militia groups, including KH, including KSS, use these facilities.  We have been very clear, the President has been very clear throughout, that we will act to protect U.S. personnel.  And given these ongoing attacks that you referred to by Iran-backed groups targeting our interests in Iraq, he directed further military action – we had taken action previously – to disrupt and deter these attacks.

“We took necessary, appropriate, deliberate action that is designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.  This action in self-defense to do what’s necessary to prevent further attacks, I think, sends a very important and strong message. And I hope very much that it is received by those who are intended to receive it.” 

QUESTION: “The first airstrikes were described as having a deterrent purpose and appear not to have served that purpose.  Are you prepared to describe what action the United States might take should the militia attacks continue?  Would the U.S. escalate its response?”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: “I think we’ve demonstrated, both with the actions taken last night and actions taken previously, that the President is fully prepared to act and act appropriately and deliberately to protect U.S. interest, to protect our people, to protect our personnel.  And again, I would hope that the message sent by the strikes last night will be heard and deter future action.”

QUESTION: “And the one other part of my question, I had asked whether you hold Iran responsible for these attacks.”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: “Well, a number of the groups involved in recent attacks are militia that are backed by Iran.” 

 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on June 28, 2021: "As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action -- the airstrikes that were announced yesterday by the Department of Defense -- pursuant to Article 2 authority to defend U.S. personnel. 

"The targeted strikes were directed at facilities used by Iran-backed militias involved in these ongoing attacks for purposes including weapons storage, command logistics, and unmanned aerial vehicle operations. 

"So, Article 2 -- the self-defense, the defense of the United States and our interests -- is our domestic justification for the strikes announced yesterday."

QUESTION: "Is there a reach out to Iran for dialogue?"

PSAKI: "Well, I would say that we are, obviously, working through it.  We just completed the sixth round of negotiations, as it relates to the Iran nuclear deal. I don't have a timeline yet for when those will reconvene.  But I don't have anything to preview in terms of other outreach to Iran."

QUESTION: "Is there a concern in the President's calculation there about, now, the threats of retaliation that are coming from some of these militia groups, and what posture he needs to have given that?"

PSAKI: "Well, the President's view is that it was necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action -- these strikes -- designed to limit the risk of escalation.  We will take -- and he believes we will -- should and will take necessary and appropriate measures to defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region.

"Certainly, I would say -- just kind of in relation to this question over here -- you know, we continue to believe that -- and have never held back from noting that Iran is a bad actor in the region.  And they have taken part in and supported and participated in problematic -- extremely problematic behavior, in our view."

"At the same time, we feel that we're moving forward, and look -- seeking the opportunity to move forward on negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is in our national interest and that's how we will evaluate.  But it was not linked to a visit by the President of Israel, nor was it linked to any elections in Iran either."

QUESTION: "The Iraqi government issued a statement, calling it an “unacceptable” violation of their sovereignty and national security.  So, I'm wondering, has there been outreach to the Iraqi government?  And also, do you have a response to that sort of complaint that they’ve lodged?"

PSAKI: "Well, I would refer you to the government of Iraq on that specific question, but I will say that the Prime Minister is a partner.  He has a tough job.  His statement called for a de-escalation from all sides, and we agree with that.  But the attacks against our troops need to stop, and that is why the President ordered the operation last night, in self-defense of our personnel." 

QUESTION: "What are the limits this White House sees on the President's Article 2 power?  Does it acknowledge that there are limits?  And to what extent does the President feel he needs to yield to the Article 1 branch when it comes to the authorization of force?" 

PSAKI: "Well, I would say that the President takes legal authority and justification for military action quite seriously.  And certainly, we consult our legal teams to ensure we have that justification, and we certainly feel confident we do.  And when there are attacks against our -- that threaten our troops -- our men and women serving bravely overseas -- and responding to those certainly qualifies as self-defense."

QUESTION: "If I can take you back to your Article 2 answers here, because they appear to be responsive to a specific incident or a set of incidents in which these UAVs were used against American troops.  But that begs the larger question of whether the President believes he needs, in whatever replaces the authorization for the use of military force, something that is specific to the Iran threat -- this category of threats.

"And similarly, when you talk about having a longer and stronger element to the Iran deal -- missiles, support of terrorism -- are you also trying to now encompass this new use of UAVs?"

PSAKI: "Certainly we want to look to build the Iran deal beyond what it was in the past.  We’ve been very clear about that, and that’s part of the discussions and negotiations, and the next step would be the seventh round of discussions and negotiations.

"But I would say that, as it relates to responding to attacks on our men and women serving -- or threats, I should say, to our facilities that are in the region, that we don't see that on the same exact track." 

"Our objective is to deescalate. But the President is going to reserve the option of responding when there's a threat against U.S. interests." 

QUESTION: "How do you balance the White House -- in this case, the President -- duty to protect Americans, whether civilians or military, in Iraq by hitting these militias, and risking violating the sovereignties of countries like Iraq, for example?"

PSAKI: "We don't want to see Iranian proxies threatening our interests in the region."

"At the same time, the President believes that when it is -- that we have to reserve the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing to protect and defend our people.  That is certainly a balance that every President of the United States needs to strike, but it is one where he feels confident that the strikes that he announced yesterday were necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation." 

QUESTION: "In the past, even during the Soleimani strike, usually these strikes came in response to incidents where a U.S. servicemember or a U.S. military contractor was killed.  So is this an indication that this administration is now pursuing a more aggressive policy on responding to Iran-backed militia attacks in Iraq? 
 
"And, secondly, was this purely a retaliatory strike or was it meant to actually thwart imminent hostilities beyond the Saturday Erbil strike upcoming in the future?"

PSAKI: "The United States selected these targets because Iran-backed militias used them to conduct at least five one-way UAV attacks against U.S. facilities in Iraq since April.  So it was in direct response to those specific attacks. 

"And as I've noted before: Of course, the President did this in -- aligned with national -- with domestic law and international law as well.  He has been clear -- the President has been clear that there will be serious consequences if Iranian leaders continue to arm, fund, and train militia groups to attack our people.

"And, obviously, we've seen -- I wouldn't say -- I mean, there's available information over the last -- beyond the last few months -- over the last year-plus as to what these attacks look like.  This was the President's decision about how he would respond to them.  I can't speak to the prior administration."
 

Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28, 2021: “The United States must always take decisive action to protect our personnel and interests against attacks. I will be seeking more information from the Administration in the coming days regarding what specifically predicated these strikes, any imminent threats they believed they were acting against, and more details on the legal authority the Administration relied upon. Congress has the power to authorize the use of military force and declarations of war, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to hear from the Administration more on these strikes as well as have a broader discussion on the 2002 AUMF when we return to Washington, D.C.

“Over the past year, Iranian-backed militia groups have increasingly targeted U.S. persons and assets, including killing Americans and coalition forces earlier this year and hitting close to the new U.S. Consulate site in Erbil over this weekend. The United States must continue to work with Iraqi Prime Minister Khadimi [sic] through the framework of the U.S.-Iraqi strategic dialogue in support of a stable, inclusive and independent Iraq. Moreover, I continue to urge the Administration to implement a comprehensive strategy towards Iran that addresses all its dangerous behavior, including ongoing attacks against the United States in Iraq and actions that undermine the Iraqi government.”

 

Senator Chris Murphy, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, on June 27, 2021: “I expect to be briefed tomorrow by the White House on the U.S. military airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border and look forward to hearing more about the circumstances. There is no doubt that President Biden possesses the ability to defend our forces abroad, and I continue to trust inherently the national security instincts of this White House.”

“My concern is that the pace of activity directed at U.S. forces and the repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy forces are starting to look like what would qualify as a pattern of hostilities under the War Powers Act. Both the Constitution and the War Powers Act require the president to come to Congress for a war declaration under these circumstances.”

 

Timeline of U.S. Airstrikes on Iraqi Militias

2019

December 29: The United States struck three Kataib Hezbollah facilities in western Iraq and two in eastern Syria. The airstrikes targeted weapons depots and command centers. Several Kataib Hezbollah militants were killed, but the Pentagon did not specify how many. Iraqi sources claimed that 25 militants were killed and 55 were wounded, Reuters reported.

The airstrikes were in response to a rocket attack against the K1 military airbase near Kirkuk on December 27, the Pentagon said. One U.S. civilian contractor was killed, and four American and two Iraqi service members were wounded.

 

2020

January 3: The United States struck a convoy of Iranian and Iraqi military leaders leaving Baghdad International Airport. The drone strike killed seven people including General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a Kataib Hezbollah senior commander. Muhandis was also the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

The airstrikes were in response to the storming of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad by Kataib Hezbollah supporters on December 31. Gunmen and demonstrators broke into a reception area inside the front gate but did not reach the main embassy buildings. They chanted “Death to America” and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the compound. No casualties were reported in the embassy attack.

March 13: The United States struck five Kataib Hezbollah facilities in central Iraq. The targets, which stored heavy and conventional weapons, were all within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad. Several Kataib Hezbollah militants were killed, U.S. officials said without specifying how many. But the airstrikes also killed three Iraqi army commandos, two federal police officers and one civilian, the Iraqi military claimed.

The airstrikes were in response to a rocket attack against Camp Taji base near Baghdad on March 11, the Pentagon said. Two American and one British service members were killed, and 14 other coalition personnel were wounded.

 

2021

February 25: The United States struck 11 buildings in Syria used by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada to transfer conventional weaponry. The facilities were located near the Abu Kamal border crossing on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq. The strikes killed one militant and injured two others, the Pentagon said.

The airstrikes were in response to three separate rocket attacks against U.S. and partner forces in Iraq earlier in the month. The deadliest attack occurred on February 15, when rockets hit the Erbil Air Base that houses U.S. troops in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. One Filipino contractor was killed, and a U.S. service member and eight other contractors were wounded.

June 27: The United States struck two facilities in Syria and one in Iraq used by Iranian-backed militias. The facilities were used by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada, which had conducted drone attacks against U.S. forces. The Pentagon did not report casualties but said that it was reviewing the damage. Iraqi military officials claimed that four men were killed in Syria.

The airstrikes were in response to five drone attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. forces in Iraq between April and June 2021. Explosive-carrying drones hit a CIA compound in Erbil on April 14, the Ain al Asad based in northern Iraq on May 8 and a residential house near the construction site of the new U.S. Consulate in Erbil on June 26. No casualties were reported in any of the drone attacks.

 

Updated