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U.S. Airstrikes Kill Iraqi Soldiers and Police, Officials Say


BAGHDAD — Iraqi military officials strongly condemned the United States military on Friday for airstrikes launched overnight that they said killed three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and a civilian worker, and damaged an unfinished civilian airport.

American officials said on Friday that the strikes had hit sites where rockets and other weapons were stored by an Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah. But according to multiple Iraqi military officials, who so far have been largely supportive of the U.S. role in Iraq, the bombings killed members of the Iraqi military and police. It was not clear whether they had killed any Kataib Hezbollah fighters.

The strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack on Wednesday that killed two Americans and a British soldier and injured 14 others at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, American officials said.

In a statement released on Friday morning, the Iraqi Joint Command described the attack as “an aggression” that “targeted Iraqi military institutions violating the principal of partnership” between the Iraqi security forces and the Americans.

This attack “cost the lives of Iraqi fighters while they were doing their military duty,” the statement said.

In Karbala, officials for the Imam Hussein shrine who are involved in the airport’s construction because millions of pilgrims come to Karbala every year to visit its holy sites, said that a civilian worker at the airport was killed and that several others “who were working on building the airport” were wounded.

“This airport is totally civilian and the holy Husseini shrine is constructing it by agreement with several Iraqi companies and using totally Iraqi civilian workers,” the statement said.

At a news conference at the Pentagon on Friday, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the military’s Central Command, said the American strikes were in self-defense to destroy rockets and other weapons that he said had been supplied by Iran and that could be used against American and allied troops in Iraq.

General McKenzie said that American officials had consulted with their Iraqi counterparts after the fatal strikes on Wednesday and knew an American response was coming.

He and other American military officials were dismissive of the Iraqi complaints given that Iraqi soldiers and police officers are often located on bases with Iranian-backed militias like Kataib Hezbollah.

“I don’t know whether the Iraqis are happy or unhappy,” General McKenzie said. “These locations that we struck are clear locations of terrorist bases. If Iraqi military forces were there, I would say it’s probably not a good idea to position yourself with Kataib Hezbollah in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members.”

General McKenzie also acknowledged that a weapons storage site at an airfield in Karbala had been destroyed. He said he did not yet have details on the overall numbers of casualties from strikes at the five locations, mostly south and southeast of Baghdad.

More broadly, the threat from Iran and its proxies remained “very high,” General McKenzie said, adding that tensions “have actually not gone down” since the killing in early January of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian general.

General McKenzie said the risk remained greatest from Iran’s proxies, including Kataib Hezbollah, and that the United States was poised to strike additional militia weapons storage sites and other targets should attacks continue.

He blamed Kataib Hezbollah for about a dozen rocket attacks against American troops based in Iraq in the past six months, with Wednesday’s volley of more than a dozen 107-millimeter rockets being one of the largest.

To increase American firepower and deterrent strength, General McKenzie said, two American aircraft carriers — the Eisenhower and the Truman — will remain in the Middle East region for the foreseeable future. Patriot antimissile batteries and other weaponry are also flowing into Iraq in the coming weeks, he said.

Separately, the Pentagon identified the two Americans killed in Wednesday’s rocket attack as the Army’s Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, of Hanford, Calif., and the Air Force’s Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28, of Owasso, Okla.

There was no comment from Kataib Hezbollah.

The Iraqi joint command warned that the latest American attacks not only meant that Iraqi soldiers and police officers had lost their lives, but risked undermining the relationship between the Iraqi military and the Americans, which is primarily focused on the fight against the Islamic State.

It could worsen the overall security situation by encouraging retaliation against the United States in revenge for the deaths of Iraqi service members and put the Iraqis in a difficult situation.

The attack on Iraqi forces “presents no solution to control the situation,” but will “lead to escalation and deterioration of the security situation in the Iraq, and expose all to more risks and threats,” the military statement said. “It is an act against the Iraqi state and an aggression on its sovereignty which strengthen the unlawful tendencies.”

According to the Iraqis, the airstrikes killed three soldiers from Iraq’s Commando Brigade 19 who were at a base near Karbala, and wounded four more. Also killed were two members of the an emergency police brigade in Babil Province. Five members of the Popular Mobilization militias were wounded as well, according to the Iraqi Joint Command.

It was unclear if the Popular Mobilization forces in Babil Province were Kataib Hezbollah members and might have been among those the Americans intended to target.

The Iraqi military has long looked at groups like Kataib Hezbollah and the other pro-Iranian armed groups with suspicion and worried about their sway within the security forces, so officials have previously offered restrained, pro forma condemnation when the U.S.-led coalition targets them.

The tone, however, was far angrier on Friday, suggesting that at least one or more of the coalition’s airstrikes had taken aim at forces who have been allies.

Alissa J. Rubin reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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