US launches airstrikes in Iraq in retaliation for rocket attack that killed three

US forces have carried out air strikes in Iraq against what the Pentagon described as five weapons storage sites run by an Iranian-back militia, in retaliation for a rocket attack which killed two American and one British soldier near Baghdad.

The tit-for-tat attacks come just two months after a similar escalation brought the US and Iran to the brink of direct conflict. This time the two sides are facing off in Iraq while struggling to contain coronavirus outbreaks at home.

The Pentagon spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, said the strikes were aimed at Kata’ib Hezbollah, a paramilitary group with strong ties with Tehran, which the US blames for Wednesday’s rocket attack.

“This evening, the US conducted defensive precision strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities across Iraq. These strikes targeted five weapon storage facilities to significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks against the US and coalition forces,” Farah said.

“These strikes were defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups who continue to attack bases hosting … coalition forces,” she added.

US military leaders said they were confident they knew Kata’ib Hezbollah militia was behind the Wednesday rocket attack.

The Defence secretary, Mark Esper, told reporters at the Pentagon earlier on Thursday that Donald Trump had authorised him to take whatever action he deemed necessary.

“We’re going to take this one step at a time, but we’ve got to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Esper said. “You don’t get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it.”

The British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said the UK supported the right of the US to defend itself, “as they have done tonight”. He said the “coalition stands shoulder to shoulder in Iraq” and that “those who seek to harm our (UK) armed forces can expect to receive a strong response”.

Two US soldiers and a British combat medic were killed and 14 other soldiers were wounded when 18 rockets hit Camp Tanji on Wednesday. The US military said the 107 mm Katyusha rockets were fired from a truck launcher that was found by Iraqi security forces near the base after the attack.

At the White House, Trump had hinted that a US retaliation could be coming, telling reporters: “We’ll see what the response is.”

Asked if any counterattack could include a strike inside Iran, Esper replied: “We are focused on the group that we believe perpetrated this in Iraq.”

The remarks represented a step down from the administration’s policy before the conflict flared up at the end of last year, in which the US said it would respond to any attack by an Iranian-backed militia as if it was a direct attack by Iran itself.

The Briton killed on Wednesday, was named as L/Cpl Brodie Gillon, a reservist who served as a frontline medic with the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, and volunteered for a deployment in Iraq this year.

On Thursday night, the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, issued a statement supporting the US airstrikes.

“The coalition stands shoulder to shoulder in Iraq…When we and others are attacked we reserve the right to defend ourselves,” Wallace said. “We support the right of the United States to defend themselves, as they have done tonight.”

“We support the right of the United States to defend themselves, as they have done tonight,” he added.

Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for a late December rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a US contractor, prompting American military strikes in response.

That in turn led to protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. They were followed 3 January by a US airstrike that killed Iran’s most powerful military officer, General Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a member. In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran launched a massive ballistic missile attack on 8 January, at al-Asad air base in Iraq, that resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops.

On Thursday, Esper and Milley said they spoke with their British counterparts about the attack, but declined to provide details.

“I am closely monitoring the airstrikes by American forces in Iraq. Anyone who harms or kills an American is going to face consequences and American forces always have a right to defend themselves,” Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House foreign affairs committee.

“But looking at the whole picture, airstrikes clearly don’t advance our broader interest of deterring Iran and don’t constitute a strategy. This administration lurches from crisis to crisis with no plan. The result is that we’re now closer to war with a country that’s closer to possessing a nuclear weapon. It’s dangerous and irresponsible.”