The United States carried out a drone strike in Baghdad early Thursday morning, killing a senior commander of an Iran-backed militia group. The strike threatens to destabilize Iraq’s fragile government and end the presence of US-led coalition forces in the country.
US Strike Targets Leader of Iran-Aligned Group
The drone strike targeted two vehicles carrying senior leaders of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia group closely aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Among those killed was Alaa Suleiman, a high-ranking commander responsible for conducting rocket attacks against US forces in Iraq.
A US defense official confirmed the strike was intended to deter future attacks by Iran’s proxies in Iraq. Tensions with these armed groups have been escalating since the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.
- Iran-backed Shia militia group
- Designated a terrorist organization by US State Department
- Has regularly conducted attacks against US forces in Iraq
- Wants to end US presence in Iraq
Suleiman was considered a key player in the militia’s efforts to pressure Iraq to remove all foreign troops. The group threatened violent retaliation over the 2020 US assassination of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
This strike comes amidst Kataib Hezbollah’s ongoing rocket attacks targeting bases housing US troops. It is the first known direct US attack against the militia since President Biden took office two years ago.
Furious Response from Iraqi Government
Iraq condemned the “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”, with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani pledging to prevent such action in the future. The strike occurred without Iraqi permission or awareness, severely testing the partnership with the US-led coalition.
- Strike conducted unilaterally by US, without Iraqi coordination
- Iraq says strike violated their sovereignty
- Iraqi PM condemns attack, wants foreign troops out
Al-Sudani, who maintains close ties to Iran-aligned groups, said Iraq intends to end the presence of over 2500 US troops stationed in the country. Most are there to train and advise Iraqi forces combatting ISIS militants.
The US Department of Defense stated the action was an exercise of self-defense without elaborating further. Earlier on Wednesday, the Pentagon made assertions about watching threats closely and being prepared to defend US interests in the region when necessary.
US DoD Statement Highlights:
- Calling strike an act of self-defense
- Had cited increasing threat climate day prior
- No further comment or details provided
Militia Vows Revenge as Iraq Seeks Withdrawal
Furious militia leaders promised vengeance for what they labeled an assassination. “The blood of our martyred commander will set fire to the American presence in all parts of Iraq,” said Akram al-Kaabi, head of the Al Nujaba militia movement.
Iraq’s parliament introduced legislation last week aiming to end the presence of all foreign troops in coming months. Al-Sudani reiterated that Iraq no longer needs military support to fight ISIS or provide security.
| Year | Key Event |
| ------------- |:-------------:|
| 2014 | ISIS takeover swathes of Iraq, US troops deployed to assist |
| 2017 | Iraq declares victory over ISIS caliphate |
| 2020 | Non-binding vote by Iraq parliament to end foreign troop presence after Soleimani killing |
| 2023 | Legislation proposed to cancel existing agreement enabling US troops |
While ISIS no longer controls territory, it still conducts frequent attacks destabilizing northern regions. Additionally, the US provides crucial air support, intelligence gathering, and reconnaissance aiding Iraq’s military.
Al-Sudani faces heavy pressure from Iran-backed parties to follow through on removing US forces. But actually doing so risks hindering efforts against ISIS resurgence and increasing militia control.
Impact on Fight Against ISIS
Expelling US-led coalition forces would likely divert Iraqi military resources from combating ISIS to protecting coalition bases. It may also enable militants to rebuild strength if pressure eases.
In the near-term, the drone strike seems certain worsen instability. Funerals for those killed could double as militia rallies calling for retaliation. Attacks aimed at US troops and facilities are probable, continuing a cycle of violence.
Broader cooperation between Iraqi security forces and the US coalition seems destined to suffer. Joint operations may halt altogether pending the government’s decision on foreign troops. This disruption comes amid rising ISIS attacks over recent months.
ISIS Activity Trends:
- Conducting ~60 attacks per month
- Increasing operations in Kirkuk, Nineveh, Anbar provinces
- Leveraging security gaps on Iran and Syria borders
Ultimately, increased tension between the US and Iran feeds into ISIS goals. Militant propaganda relies on characterizing the US and Iran as enemies of Sunni Muslims. Heightened US-Iran conflicts help reinforce this narrative.
Whether Iraq actually moves forward with canceling existing agreements remains uncertain. But the diplomatic damage is done, spurring questions on who may fill the void if US military support evaporates.
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