Defense Secretary Mark Esper testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the budget, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. An uptick in Taliban attacks against Afghan forces that prompted a retaliatory U.S. airstrike has underscored the fragility of the peace deal between the Trump administration and the group. Esper told the Senate hearing that the Taliban are honoring the agreement by not attacking U.S. and coalition forces, “but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Pentagon threatening retaliatory strike after attack in Iraq

March 12, 2020 - 12:37 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. defense leaders on Thursday threatened a retaliatory strike against Iranian-backed Shia militia in Iraq, saying they know who launched the rockets in Iraq that killed and wounded U.S. and coalition troops and the attackers will be held accountable.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that President Donald Trump on Wednesday night gave him the authority to do what he needs to do. It signaled a renewed spike in tensions with Iran and its proxy groups in Iraq.

“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.”

At the White House, Trump said the attackers were a rebel group that "mostly likely looked like it could be backed by Iran. And we'll see what the response is.”

Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to provide any more information about any impending U.S. retaliation for the attack at Camp Taji north of Baghdad. But Esper said all options are on the table.

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

Two U.S. troops and one British service member were killed and 14 other personnel at the base were wounded when 18 rockets hit the base on Wednesday.

U.S. officials have not publicly said what group they believe launched the rocket attack, but Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia militia group, is likely.

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

That in turn led to protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. They were followed Jan. 3 by a U.S. airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful military officer, Gen. 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 Jan. 8, at al-Asad air base in Iraq, that resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops.

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