An Iranian-backed militia said yesterday that the death toll from United States military strikes in Iraq and Syria against its fighters has risen to 25, vowing to exact revenge for the “aggression of evil American ravens.”
The U.S. attack, the largest yet targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia and the calls for retaliation, represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran playing out in the Middle East that could threaten U.S. interests in the region.
The calls for revenge in Baghdad came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Washington had carried out military strikes targeting the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia it had blamed for a rocket attack that killed an American contractor in Iraq last week.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strikes send the message that the U.S. will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives. The U.S. military said “precision defensive strikes” were conducted against five sites of Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria.
The group, which is separate force from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Many of them are supported by Iran.
“Our battle with America and its mercenaries is now open to all possibilities,” Kataeb Hezbollah said in a statement around midnight Sunday.
“We have no alternative today other than confrontation and there is nothing that will prevent us from responding to this crime.”
The U.S. blames the militia for a rocket barrage Friday that killed a U.S. defense contractor at a military compound near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, as well as for a series of other attacks on bases that house American troops in Iraq that have not been claimed by any faction. Officials said as many as 30 rockets were fired in the Kirkuk attack.
A spokesman for Kataeb Hezbollah denied that the group was behind the rocket attacks on U.S. bases, including the one that killed the American contractor, saying Washington is using them as a pretext to attack his group