U.S. Weighing All Options to Respond to Iraq Strike, Esper Says

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will consider a full range of possible responses to a rocket attack against a base in Iraq this week that killed coalition personnel, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.

“All options are on the table as we work with our partners to bring the perpetrators to justice and maintain deterrence,” Esper told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Thursday. “As we’ve demonstrated in recent months, we will take any actions necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”

Two Americans and a British service member were killed in the Wednesday attack against a base in Iraq only months after a similar assault almost led to a direct military confrontation with Iran. About a dozen were wounded. Katyusha rockets struck Camp Taji, an Iraqi base that hosts coalition personnel for training and advising missions, the coalition said in an emailed statement. Iraqi Security Forces found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from Camp Taji after the strike, according to the statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and U.K. Foreign Minister Dominic Raab discussed the attack in a call in which they “reiterated U.S.-U.K. solidarity on this issue” and condemned “all attacks against coalition personnel supporting the Iraqi government’s efforts to defeat ISIS,” according to a U.S. statement. “Those responsible for the attacks must be held accountable.”

An Iranian-backed Shiite militia group was probably behind the deadly attack as the Islamic Republic continues to use asymmetrical warfare to target American interests across the Middle East, the head of U.S. Central Command said Thursday.

“The Iranian proxy group Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq,” General Kenneth McKenzie said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. This indicates Iran’s “desire to continue malign activities” despite periods of decreased tension with the U.S., he said.

A rocket assault in late December that killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. service personnel resulted in the U.S. striking five bases in Iraq and Syria used by an Iranian-backed militia. Then in early January the U.S. killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who the Trump administration accused of planning more attacks against American targets. Iran responded by firing more than a dozen missiles at U.S.-Iraqi bases.

The military escalation at the start of the year fueled concerns that the U.S. and Iran could be drawn into an armed confrontation that could easily pull in other countries and destabilize the strategic oil-producing region of the Persian Gulf. Tensions between the two countries had been building since President Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that had promised rapprochement between Iran and the West.

‘Close Call’

“It’s a close call, but we doubt that Trump will escalate and attack targets inside of Iran in retaliation for the killing of the Americans” in the latest episode, Eurasia Group Chairman Cliff Kupchan and colleagues wrote in a note on Wednesday. “Trump faces a Dow in bear territory, faltering global markets, an oil price war and a public health crisis at home. An attack on Iran may push markets off the cliff and risk conflict in a region in the world he wants to depart. But the pressure for a meaningful retaliation will be intense.”

Iraq’s presidential office issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the attack and called on all sides to show restraint.

The attack Wednesday came as the U.S. House voted to restrict Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran unless Congress gives its authorization. The Senate passed the resolution in February, but the president has said he’ll veto it. Votes in both chambers were far short of the two-thirds majority needed for an override.

Later on Wednesday, explosions were heard in the Iraqi border town of Qaim near Syria after unidentified war jets carried out air strikes targeting some locations, Iraq’s al-Sumeria news reported. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said on its website that 18 Iraqi militiamen were killed after the unidentified fighter jets hit a base along the Iraq-Syria border used by Iranian-backed militias.

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