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Article: US hits Iran-backed militia in Iraq in latest strikes

US hits Iran-backed militia in Iraq in latest strikes

US hits Iran-backed militia in Iraq in latest strikes

PHOTO CAPTION: A U.S. Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon from the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard rotates during a full afterburner take off from the Atlantic City Air National Guard base in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., Dec. 9, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Andrew J. Moseley via U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)



By Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Timour Azhari

WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) -The United States carried out two series of strikes in Iraq against Iranian-backed militants, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, in the first publicly reported U.S. responses in Iraq to dozens of recent attacks against troops in the region.

Until this week, the United States had been reluctant to retaliate in Iraq because of the delicate political situation there.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani has limited control over the Iranian-backed militias, whose support he needed to win power a year ago and who now form a powerful bloc in his governing coalition.

The strike on Tuesday evening targeted two facilities in Iraq, the U.S. military said in a statement.

"The strikes were in direct response to the attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces by Iran and Iran-backed groups," the statement said.

The strike by fighter aircraft targeted and destroyed a Kataeb Hezbollah operations center and a Kataeb Hezbollah Command and Control node near Al Anbar and Jurf al Saqr, south of Baghdad, a U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iraq's Kataeb Hezbollah militia is a powerful armed faction with close ties to Iran.

The official said there were Kataeb Hezbollah personnel present, but an assessment was ongoing about casualties.

About 24 hours earlier, U.S. forces were attacked at an air base west of Baghdad and a U.S. military AC-130 aircraft responded in self-defense, killing a number of Iranian-backed militants, U.S. officials said.

Ain al-Asad air base was attacked by a close-range ballistic missile that resulted in eight injuries and minor damage to infrastructure, two U.S. officials said.

The United States had so far limited its response to the 66 attacks against its forces in Iraq and neighboring Syria, claimed by Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups, to three separate sets of strikes in Syria.

At least 62 U.S. personnel have suffered minor injuries or traumatic brain injuries in the attacks.

The attacks began on Oct. 17 and have been linked by Iraqi militia groups to U.S. support for Israel in its bombardment of Gaza following attacks by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel.

The attacks against U.S. targets have ended a year-long unilateral truce that Iraqi factions, some formed in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion to fight U.S. troops and others in 2014 to fight Islamic State, declared with Washington.

Social media accounts linked to Iran-aligned Iraqi militias published a statement in the name of the "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" mourning a member who they said had been killed in battle against U.S. forces on Tuesday, without elaborating.

His killing is the first reported casualty in Iraq linked to the Gaza war, which has drawn in other factions in Iran's network of regional militias, known as the Axis of Resistance, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The United States has 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq on a mission it says aims to advise and assist local forces trying to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large swaths of both countries before being defeated.

(Reporting by Timour Azhari in Baghdad, Phil Stewart and Ali Idrees in Washington; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alexandra Hudson, Chizu Nomiyama, Mark Porter and Leslie Adler)



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