Members of the Hezbollah brigades, Kataeb Hezbollah, attend the funeral of Fadel Al Maksusi, a militant who was also part of the “Islamic resistance in Iraq”, the group that has claimed all recent attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria, in Baghdad on November 21, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

BAGHDAD: US fighter jets struck two targets in Iraq early on Wednesday killing five pro-Iran fighters in retaliation for repeated attacks on US troops in Iraq by Iran-backed groups, US and Iraqi sources said.

The US military “conducted discrete, precision strikes against two facilities in Iraq,” US Central Command said on X, previously Twitter.

“The strikes were in direct response to the attacks against US and coalition forces by Iran and Iran-backed groups,” the post added, and come the day after a previous US air strike targeted Iranian-backed fighters in Iraq.

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An Iraqi security force official said Wednesday’s strikes killed five fighters of the Hezbollah Brigades, a pro-Iran group within Iraq’s Hashed Al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force. A Hashed official confirmed the death toll.

Wednesday’s attacks were carried out by US fighter aircraft on two facilities south of Baghdad, a Pentagon source said on condition of anonymity.

Hours earlier, a warplane struck the vehicle of Iranian-backed fighters after they had fired a short-range ballistic missile at US and allied personnel, the Pentagon said.

It was the first time the United States has announced a strike on Iran-backed forces in Iraq since they launched a flurry of attacks against US targets in response to Washington’s support for Israel in its war to destroy Hamas.

Washngton has targeted Iran-backed groups in neighbouring Syria, however, carrying out strikes on three occasions in recent weeks.

Since the Gaza war erupted with a deadly Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, US forces deployed in Iraq and Syria have been attacked at least 66 times, most recently on Monday night, according to Pentagon officials.

“We can confirm an attack last night by Iran-backed militias using a close-range ballistic missile against US and coalition forces at Al-Asad Airbase, which resulted in eight injuries and some minor damage to infrastructure,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement.

‘Self-defence strike’

The Ain Al Asad Air Base lies in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and hosts forces of the US-led coalition fighting the Daesh (Islamic State - IS) group in Iraq.

“Immediately following the attack, a US military AC-130 aircraft in the area conducted a self-defence strike against an Iranian-backed militia vehicle and a number of Iranian-backed militia personnel involved in this attack. This self-defence strike resulted in several enemy KIA (killed in action),” Ryder said.

A group calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq said one of its fighters was killed, without elaborating on the circumstances.

The surge in attacks on US troops comes amid a relentless Israeli offensive against Hamas that the Gaza health ministry says has killed 14,100 people, thousands of them civilians.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in response to its shock cross-border attack from Gaza on October 7 that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians.

Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters in Washington that US forces “have been attacked approximately 66 times since October 17 - 32 separate times in Iraq and 34 separate times in Syria.”

She said the attacks have resulted in approximately 62 injuries to US personnel, but that number did not include the eight cited by Ryder.

While US forces have been targeted in both Iraq and Syria, Washington had until now only responded with strikes in Syria in an apparent bid to avoid inflaming political tensions in Iraq, which the United States invaded in 2003 and where Iran wields substantial influence.

Singh said the militants were targeted in Iraq “because the AC-130 was able to determine the point of origin from where the close-range ballistic missile was... fired to the base” and then tracked the militants in their vehicle.

She added it was the first time such a munition had been used against US forces since the wave of attacks began on October 17.

A source from the Hashed - mainly pro-Iranian units now integrated in Iraq’s regular armed forces - had earlier confirmed a strike on a vehicle had killed one fighter and wounded three others.

The fighter’s funeral was held in a Baghdad mosque Tuesday and hundreds of Hashed fighters attended, an AFP journalist reported.

There are roughly 2,500 US troops in Iraq and some 900 in Syria as part of efforts to prevent a resurgence of the Daesh group.