BAGHDAD (AP) — An Iranian-backed militia said Monday that the death toll from U.S. military strikes in Iraq and Syria against its fighters has risen to 25, vowing to exact revenge for the "aggression of evil American ravens."
The announcement in Baghdad came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Washington had carried out military strikes targeting the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia blamed for a rocket attack that killed an American contractor in Iraq last week.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strikes send the message that the U.S. will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives.
The U.S. military said "precision defensive strikes" were conducted against five sites of Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria.
"Our battle with America and its mercenaries is now open to all possibilities," Kataeb Hezbollah said in a statement around midnight Sunday. "We have no alternative today other than confrontation and there is nothing that will prevent us from responding to this crime."
The U.S. blames the militia for a rocket barrage Friday that killed a U.S. defense contractor at a military compound near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. Officials said as many as 30 rockets were fired in that attack.
Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades, a separate force from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Many of them are supported by Iran.
The Popular Mobilization Forces said Sunday that the U.S. strikes killed at least 19 of Kataeb Hezbollah's members. But Kataeb Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Mohieh told The Associated Press on Monday that the death toll rose to 25. At least 51 militiamen were wounded and some of them were serious condition, he said, adding that the militia group's commanders would decide on the retaliation.
In Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi condemned the U.S. strikes against Kataeb Hezbollah as an “obvious case of terrorism” and accused Washington of ignoring Iraq's sovereignty.
Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah also blasted the "brutal American aggression," saying those who took the decision to carry out the attack "will soon discover how stupid this criminal decision was."
Kataeb Hezbollah is led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of Iraq’s most powerful men. He once battled U.S. troops and is now the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces. In 2009, the State Department linked him to the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, designated a foreign terrorist organization by President Donald Trump earlier this year.
The U.S. maintains some 5,000 troops in Iraq, at the invitation of the Iraqi government to assist and train in the fight against the Islamic State group.
The attack that killed the American contractor and U.S. counter-strikes come as months of political turmoil roil Iraq. About 500 people have died in anti-government protests, most of them demonstrators killed by Iraqi security forces.
The mass uprisings prompted the resignation last month of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who remains in a caretaker capacity.
In a statement, Abdul-Mahdi said Esper had called him about a half-hour before the U.S. strikes on Sunday to tell him of U.S. intentions to hit bases of the militia suspected of being behind Friday's rocket attack. Abdul-Mahdi said he asked Esper to call off the U.S. plan.
Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.