A U.S. airstrike in Baghdad killed an Iranian-backed militia leader amid continued attacks by Iranian proxy forces on merchant shipping in the Middle East, a defense official confirmed on Thursday.

According to the defense official, U.S. forces killed  Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, who was also known as Abu-Taqwaa, a leader of the Harakat-al-Nujaba militia, an Iranian proxy group that has targeted U.S. forces. “Abu-Taqwa was actively involved in planning and carrying out attacks against American personnel,” the defense official said in a statement. The strike also killed one other Harakat-al-Nujaba member. This strike was taken in self-defense.  No civilians were harmed.  No infrastructure or facilities were struck.”

Harakat-al-Nujaba is part of the “Islamic Resistance of Iraq,” an umbrella organization of Iranian-backed groups that attack U.S. troops. The group has issued a statement announcing that one of its leaders – whose name it spelled as Mushtaq Talib al-Saidi – had been “martyred in a US strike,” the Times of Israel has reported.

Al-Saidi has also been described in media reports as deputy head of operations in Baghdad for the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of Shiite militias that are nominally under Iraqi control, but many have direct ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, was unable to say whether Harakat-al-Nujaba was part of the Popular Mobilization Forces. He also had no information about which attacks Harakat-al-Nujaba has carried out against American forces in Iraq and Syria.

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“The HAN group [Harakat-al-Nujaba]  is an Iranian proxy group that has been targeting U.S. forces,” Ryder said at a Pentagon news briefing. “Again, we took appropriate and proportionate action.”

The airstrike is the latest example of how the long running proxy war between Iran and the United States has heated up after Hamas launched its Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel. Several Iranian-backed groups, known collectively as the “Axis of Resistance,” have launched drone, rocket, and missile attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria and threatened international commerce in the Red Sea.

Baghdad airstrike
A member of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitaries holds a sign identifying one of the group’s slain members during the funeral at the PMF headquarters in Baghdad on January 4, 2024. Harakat al-Nujaba, one of the PMF’s factions, said in a statement that “the deputy commander of operations for Baghdad, Mushtaq Talib al-Saidi”, had been “martyred in a US strike”. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye AFP via Getty Images)

A Christmas Day drone attack against American forces in Erbil, Iraq left a pilot with the 82nd Airborne Division critically injured with a head wound. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have also launched 25 attacks against merchant vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since Nov. 18, including an unsuccessful attack on Thursday by an unmanned surface vessel, the head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, told reporters.

Iraqi officials have roundly condemned Thursday’s airstrike. The country’s foreign affairs ministry described the strike in a statement as an “assault on a security formation connected to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces,”  adding that Iraq reserves the right to “deter anyone attempting to undermine its territory and security forces.”

Iraqi Maj. Gen.l Yahya Rasool Abdullah, a spokesman for his country’s military, decried the airstrike as “a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.” 

“We consider this targeting a serious escalation and an assault on Iraq, far removed from the spirit and text of the mandate and the purpose for which the international coalition is present in Iraq,” he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s office called the airstrike a “dangerous escalation and aggression,” Al Jazeera is reporting.

“The Iraqi armed forces hold the forces of the international coalition responsible for this attack,” the statement says.

While it is not immediately clear which attacks against U.S, troops al-Saidi may have authorized, Harakat-al-Nujaba is a core member of the “Axis of Resistance” militias that Iran uses to wield influence in Iraq and Syria, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C.

The group’s top leader Akram al-Kaabi pledged support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad following the Oct. 7 attacks.

Thursday’s airstrike is the most significant U.S. action since the January 2020 drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Taleblu said.

An Iranian young boy holds a portrait of former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani who has killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in 2020, while attending a funeral for the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) unknown martyrs in downtown Tehran on January 6, 2022. Thousands of Iranians attend a funeral for 150 Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) unknown Martyrs that have found by the Iranian Martyrs investigation group in the war main field  34-years after a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An Iranian young boy holds a portrait of former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani who has killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in 2020. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But it remains to be seen if the strike will have the deterrence effect that the U.S. government intended, he told Task & Purpose.

“I think in the short term, the U.S. is trying to reestablish deterrence in Iraq,” Taleblu said. “The challenge is that this very much has to do with the psychology of the actors you’re trying to deter. Despite the slight increase in the number of pinprick strikes, both in Syria and in Iraq, the militias remain undeterred because they see the political timeline as being in their favor, and there remain serious questions as to U.S. will to continue to carry out such operations when the response ratio doesn’t look so good for Washington.”

While Iranian-backed militias attack U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, another branch of the Axis of Resistance continues to wage war at sea. On Thursday, Houthi rebels launched an unmanned surface vessel for the first time against merchant shipping, but it exploded in the shipping lanes without damaging any vessels or injuring any ships’ crew members, Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said at a Pentagon news briefing.

The suicide drone boat was launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen and traveled about 15 miles out to sea before exploding, Cooper told reporters. It is unclear what the drone boat’s target was.

“The Houthi ruthless attacks have continued, as you know, and there are no signs that their irresponsible behavior is abating,” Cooper said. “We are certainly mindful of the continued threat and expect the Houthi attacks may continue.”

Since Dec. 18, the United States and partner nations have conducted Operation Prosperity Guardian, to protect merchant vessels from Houthi attacks, Cooper said. All told, the U.S. Navy has shot down 61 drones and missiles and sunk three Houthi boats, Cooper said.

On Wednesday, the United States and 12 other nations issued an ultimatum to Houthi rebels, warning that they would “bear the responsibility of the consequences” if they continued to attack merchant shipping.

Cooper stressed on Thursday that Operation Prosperity Guardian is purely defensive in nature, adding, “Anything that happens outside of the defensive aspect of this operation is a completely different operation.”

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