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Politics

An Iranian-backed militia official downplays the US strikes in Iraq, hints at deescalation

Syrian state media reported that there were casualties from the strikes but did not give a number. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that 23 people were killed in the Syria strikes, all rank-and-file fighters.

Iraqi government spokesperson Bassim al-Awadi said in a statement Saturday that the strikes in Iraq near the Syrian border killed 16, including civilians, and there was “significant damage” to homes and private properties.

A U.S. official said Saturday that an initial battle damage assessment showed the U.S. had struck each of its planned targets in addition to a few “dynamic targets” that popped up as the mission unfolded, including a surface to air missile site and drone launch sites. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that were not yet public, did not yet have a casualty assessment.

Iraq’s foreign ministry announced Saturday it would summon the U.S. embassy’s chargé d’affaires — the ambassador being outside of the country — to deliver a formal protest over U.S. strikes on “Iraqi military and civilian sites.”

The air assault was the opening salvo of U.S. retaliation for a drone strike that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan last weekend. The U.S. has blamed that on the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias.

Iran, meanwhile, has attempted to distance itself from the attack, saying that the militias act independently of its direction.

Iraqi spokesperson al-Awadi condemned the strikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, particularly since some of them targeted facilities of the Population Mobilization Forces. The PMF, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias, was officially brought under the umbrella of the Iraqi armed forces after it joined the fight against the Islamic State in 2014, but in practice it continues to operate largely outside of state control.

The Popular Mobilization Forces said in a statement Saturday that one of the sites targeted was an official security headquarters of the group. In addition to 16 killed, it said 36 had been wounded, “while the search is still ongoing for the bodies of a number of the missing.”

The Iraqi government has been in a delicate position since a group of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias calling itself Islamic Resistance in Iraq — many of whose members are also part of the PMF — began launching attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria on Oct. 18. The group described the strikes as retaliation for Washington’s support for Israel in the war in Gaza.

Iraqi officials have attempted behind the scenes to rein the militias in, while also condemning U.S. retaliatory strikes as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and calling for an exit of the 2,500 U.S. troops in the country as part of an international coalition to fight IS. Last month, Iraqi and U.S. military officials launched formal talks to wind down the coalition’s presence, a process that will likely take years.

One of the main Iran-backed militias, Kataib Hezbollah, said it was suspending attacks on American troops following Sunday’s strike that killed the U.S. troops in Jordan, to avoid “embarrassing” the Iraqi government.

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