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Pentagon chief tells Iraq to safeguard bases housing US forces

Rocket strikes on Iraqi bases where members of US-led coalition are also stationed have increased in past weeks
A member of the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) militia near Tal Afar airport in 2016 (AFP/File photo)

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has called on Iraqi authorities to prevent attacks on military bases housing US troops, a statement from the Iraqi prime minister's office said.

Esper made the comments on Monday, a week after another senior US military official warned against attacks by Iranian-backed groups.

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Rocket strikes targeting Iraqi bases where members of the US-led coalition are stationed are reported to have increased in the past weeks.

No party has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but a senior US military official told Reuters news agency that intelligence and forensic analyses of the rockets and launchers pointed to Iranian-backed Shia militia groups.

The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), also known as Hashd al-Shaabi, is an umbrella group under which Iraq's mostly-Shia militias operate. The US and Israel accuse the PMU of being backed by Iran.

Fully recognised by the Iraqi government in 2018, the PMU had been instrumental in Iraq's fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also expressed his concern over the attacks and "called for serious efforts that would involve everyone to prevent escalation".

What those preventative actions might entail was not clear, but Mahdi warned against the US making "unilateral decisions" that might "threaten the stability, sovereignty and independence of Iraq". 

'Outside control of the state'

Earlier this month, the Iraqi government summoned the ambassadors of Germany, Britain, Canada and France after they criticised Mahdi's handling of PMU forces' alleged attacks.

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Mahdi resigned last month under pressure from mass anti-government protests, but he remains in a position of power, carrying out his duties in a caretaker capacity.

The four diplomats had warned that "no armed group should be able to operate outside of the control of the state".

Iraq's foreign ministry said it had summoned all four envoys for their "unacceptable intervention in Iraq's internal affairs".

On 5 December, several rockets struck the Balad air base hosting US troops and government contractors about 50 miles north of Baghdad. 

Two days prior to that, at least five rockets were also fired at Ain al-Asad air base in northern Anbar province.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen as a result of US sanctions against Tehran. The two sides have also traded blame over attacks on oil installations, militia arms depots and bases hosting US forces.