U.S. Drone Strike in Iraq Kills Militia Leader Behind Deadly Attack on American Base

A U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last week killed a senior commander of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia blamed for a deadly attack on a U.S. military base in Jordan last month. The strike signals an escalation in the Pentagon’s efforts to deter attacks against American forces in the region by targeting militia leaders directly involved in planning and carrying out the attacks.

The Kataib Hezbollah commander, who was not named by U.S. officials, was killed in the strike on February 1st. He was described by the Pentagon as being responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and Syria.

The strike came just days after Kataib Hezbollah used drones to attack the King Faisal Air Base in Jordan on January 28th, killing 3 American service members and injuring several more. That attack prompted the U.S. to launch a series of retaliatory strikes targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in both Iraq and Syria. According to U.S. Central Command, at least 85 targets were hit in those strikes intended to degrade the militias’ ability to conduct further attacks.

Despite those efforts, the Iran-aligned groups have continued targeting American bases and personnel across the region. U.S. officials say there have been over 168 such attacks over the past couple years. The strike that killed the Kataib Hezbollah commander appears to signal a shift to more directly targeting the leadership of the militias responsible for orchestrating the attacks.

Kataib Hezbollah acknowledged the U.S. strike in Baghdad and vowed to continue its “jihad” against American forces. Other Iran-backed militias also condemned the attack and promised retaliation. The killing of militia leaders risks provoking further attacks on U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Syria, but American commanders seem willing to take that risk in order to degrade the militias’ capacity to plan and direct attacks.

The strike also risks further straining relations with the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani criticized the U.S. for violating Iraq’s sovereignty and called for negotiations to end the presence of American troops in Iraq. There are currently around 2,500 U.S. service members stationed in the country as part of the international coalition formed in 2014 to support Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS.

Al-Sudani has tread carefully between the U.S. and the militias, which hold substantial political power within Iraq. He has denounced attacks on American bases but stopped short of calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Instead, he has advocated for a gradual drawdown over the next year.

The strike that killed the Kataib Hezbollah commander was not the first such mission approved by President Biden against militia leaders. In early January, a U.S. strike in Baghdad killed another commander, Moshtaq Talib al-Saadi. But directly targeting leaders within Iraq itself, rather than just striking facilities in Iraq and Syria, represents an escalation of the American campaign.

“In general, U.S. strikes have targeted capabilities to make it harder for these groups to target American forces,” said Andrew Tabler, a former White House official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Now, the U.S. is going after the brains of the operations.”

According to U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the region, there have been three targeted strikes specifically aimed at Iranian-backed militia leaders in Iraq since Biden took office. The uptick in strikes targeting militia leadership comes as the U.S. attempts to deter what officials say is an increasing threat to American personnel stationed in the region following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Rival militias reportedly refer to Kataib Hezbollah as the “Khamenei Group” due to its loyalty to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The group is seen as a subunit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is supplied and directed by Tehran. Its commitment to attacking U.S. forces and advancing Iranian interests in Iraq and Syria make its leaders priority targets for American strikes.

The escalating tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iranian-backed militias threaten to undermine stability in Iraq and Syria at a time when the Biden administration is focused on strategic competition with China and responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the White House sees little choice but to retaliate as the attacks on U.S. personnel continue. The risk is that targeted strikes on militia leaders provoke reprisals, fueling a cycle of violence that becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

Al-Sudani’s government finds itself caught in the middle, relying on U.S. military support while trying to restrain the militias that wield substantial influence within his country. His calls for a gradual withdrawal of American troops appear aimed at placating both sides. But the continued militia attacks on U.S. bases are undermining the Iraqi government’s efforts at balancing those competing interests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. seems committed to an aggressive campaign to degrade the Iranian-backed militias through strikes on their capabilities and leadership. The ultimate goal is deterring further attacks on American forces, but the risk remains that the strategy backfires and fuels the cycle of violence instead.

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