During the early morning hours of 13 March 2020, the U.S. military launched airstrikes against Iran-backed Kata’ib Hizballah positions inside Iraq. Following the military operation, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a statement indicating that it had targeted five weapons storage facilities used for preparing attacks against U.S. and coalition forces. Reports indicate that U.S. forces struck militia targets in Jurf al-Nasr, Musayib, Najaf and Alexandria, all located south of Baghdad. Iraqi sources reported that two Iraqi police officers and three Iraqi soldiers were killed in the strikes. U.S. diplomats warn that potentially violent demonstrations are likely given the heightened regional tensions. Iraqi security forces cordoned off the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. No reports of demonstrations or unrest have followed since the strike.

Analyst Comment: U.S. officials indicated that the strikes were “defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMG) who continue to attack bases hosting OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve) coalition forces.” The U.S. military operation was almost certainly intended as retaliation for a rocket attack launched on 11 March by Kata’ib Hizballah against the Taji Camp near Baghdad, which hosts an unspecified number of U.S. and coalition personnel. Kata’ib Hezbollah is suspected to have launched at least 18 Katyusha rockets from a makeshift platform in an urban area. The strike on 11 March killed at least three people — including two U.S. service members and one from the U.K. — and wounded 14 others. Kata’ib Hezbollah is regarded as the only Iran-backed militia group in Iraq with the capability to launch such attacks against coalition targets. In December 2019, the militia launched a similar rocket attack against a coalition base in Kirkuk, Iraq, which killed at least one person and wounded an unspecified number of others.

The U.S. retaliatory strikes on 13 March mark the latest in a series of small-scale escalatory actions between pro-Iran Shia militia groups in Iraq against U.S. and coalition forces in the country, and have raised regional tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The situation has the potential to generate potentially violent demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere across Iraq. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq issued a Security Alert on 12 March stating that services at the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil would be suspended from 15-19 March “due to heightened regional tensions and in an abundance of caution.”