By Idrees Ali and Ahmed Rasheed
WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD, Dec 29 (Reuters) – U.S. officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend U.S. interests.
The U.S. military carried out the strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.
U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by his top national security advisers following the strikes at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.
“We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the briefing with Trump.
Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared briefly in a club ballroom to comment on the airstrikes.
Esper termed the offensive “successful,” but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.
“We discussed with him other options that are available,” Esper said. “I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.”
Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three U.S. air strikes in Iraq on Sunday.
At least four local Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the militia group’s headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.
The Pentagon said it had targeted three locations of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia group in Iraq and two in Syria. The locations included weapons storage facilities and command and control locations the group had used to plan and execute attacks on coalition forces, it said.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strikes were carried out by F-15 fighter jets.
The United States had accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out a strike involving more than 30 rockets on Friday which killed the U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
“In response to repeated Kata’ib Hizbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, U.S. forces have conducted precision defensive strikes … that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.
Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and warned Iran that any attacks by Tehran or proxies that harmed Americans or allies would be “answered with a decisive U.S. response.”
Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington since last year when Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran‘s economy.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq and Steve Holland in Palm Beach, Fla Writing by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Jason Lange and James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)