US airstrikes on Iraqi militia were purely ‘defensive' even though they were technically offensive, commander says

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The results of the March 12, 2020 airstrikes against Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militias in Iraq

The results of the March 12, 2020 airstrikes against Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militias in Iraq

The U.S. military is trying hard to emphasize that the airstrikes on the Iranian-backed militia that is believed to be responsible for the deaths of two American troops and one British service member were “defensive” rather than retaliatory.

Army Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28, were killed in Wednesday’s rocket attack on Camp Taji, Iraq. 

The U.S. government has placed blame for the attack on the Iraqi militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, whose former leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed by the same Jan. 3 U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, then head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force.

The Defense Department’s news release on Thursday twice described the U.S. airstrikes on five Kata’ib Hezbollah as a “defensive” move following the deadly Camp Taji attack.

“These 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 news release said.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, briefed the Pentagon press corps about the airstrikes on Friday. The first slide in his presentation referred to the attacks as “defensive strikes on Katib Hizbollah.”

Task & Purpose asked McKenzie on Friday if calling the five airstrikes “defensive” perhaps stretches the definition of the word.

“Actually, no I don’t think so at all,” McKenzie replied. “I think these attacks are designed to prevent future attacks on us, which would be the definition of a defensive action. Clearly, dropping a bomb is in of itself an offensive tactical action – but in the broader context these are designed to be defensive strikes.”

The U.S. military believes that Kata’ib Hezbollah is responsible for a total of 12 rocket attacks on coalition forces in Iraq over the past six months, including the Camp Taji attack, said McKenzie, who did not elaborate on what evidence he based that conclusion on.

U.S. military officials also assume that the airstrikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah following the Camp Taji attack will “have an effect on deterring future strikes of this nature,” McKenzie said.

“We’ve seen in the past what happens when you don’t respond,” he said. “Now people know that we’re not going to tolerate these direct attacks on American or coalition service members – and we’re willing and able to respond.”

McKenzie said the U.S. military told the Iraqi government after the Camp Taji attack that “a response was coming,” but he did not specify whether Iraqi officials were given advance warning of the five airstrikes.

However, Iraq’s military has issued a statement saying that five security personnel were killed in the strikes, according to Al Jazeera.

“If Iraqi military forces were there, I would say it’s probably not a good idea to position yourself with Kata’ib Hezbollah in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members,” McKenzie said.