U.S. airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia group were the direct result of the Baghdad government's failure to act against repeated attacks on American bases in Iraq, U.S. officials said Monday.
In unusually harsh wording aimed at an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, three top State Department officials, speaking on background in a briefing to reporters, said the U.S. had no choice but to hit back at the Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militia when Iraq's security forces took no action following at least 11 attacks on U.S. bases in the last two months.
"We have warned the Iraqi government many times and we've shared information with them to try to work with them to carry out their responsibility to protect us as their invited guests," one official said.
The turning point came Friday, when a barrage of more than 30 rockets hit a U.S. base near Kirkuk in north-central Iraq, killing an American contractor and wounding four U.S. troops, the officials said.
On Sunday, U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighters attacked three KH weapons depots and command-and-control centers in Iraq and two in Syria, according to the Pentagon.
"If there is any further escalation, it lies directly at the feet of Iran's proxies -- not us," said a second State Department official.
The officials dismissed Iranian condemnations of the airstrikes, but were especially critical of similar complaints coming from the embattled government of Iraq's caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
"We're disappointed in those statements" from Baghdad, a third State Department official said. "Yeah, it's a disappointment. It's in moments like this that you see people's true colors."
The dispute over the airstrikes and what led up to them raised questions about the continuing presence of about 5,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq on a train, advise and assist mission.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for Abdul-Mahdi, told the Iraqi News Agency that the prime minister called U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper before the airstrikes were launched to warn against them.
"We have previously confirmed our rejection of any unilateral action by the coalition forces or any other forces inside Iraq, and we consider it as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the region," Abdul Mahdi's spokesman said.
An emergency session of the Iraqi National Security Council resulted in the issuance of a statement that the status of U.S. forces in Iraq would be reviewed.
The escalating crisis with Iran and the frayed relations with Baghdad led Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to go to Florida on Sunday night to meet with President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Without giving specifics, Esper told reporters later that the U.S. "would 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."
In a statement issued by his spokesman, Abdul-Mahdi warned of "dangerous consequences" resulting from the U.S. airstrikes, and the Tehran regime issued similar warnings.
"The U.S. has demonstrated its decisive support for terrorism and disregard for the independence and sovereignty of nations by launching these attacks, and it must accept the responsibility for the consequences of such illegal measures," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said.
"The U.S. must end its occupier-style presence" in Iraq and the region, he added, according to Iran's Tasnim news agency.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.