On March 12, 2020, the U.S. conducted airstrikes on sites in Iraqi cities believed to be used as weapon depots by Iran-backed militias that have been vowing revenge for the U.S. drone strike that killed IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
The U.S. airstrikes triggered a wide range of reactions among Iraqi officials and political leaders. While Iraqi officials' statements seemed to reflect their concern that the violence against the U.S.-led forces might escalate further and drag Iraq into chaos, the tactful reactions of top clerics appear to show some relief over what they hope to be the beginning of a waning influence of Iran's proxies in the country.
The statements of Iran-backed militia leaders after the U.S. airstrikes continued to echo the same threatening language, vowing revenge and calling for "obligatory resistance" against the U.S forces. However, in what appears to be an attempt to avoid perhaps being a target of future airstrikes, some militia leaders restrained from using empty threats, opting to tone down their condemnation by calling on Washington to negotiate a peace deal similar to the recent deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Other Shi'ite factions that are more beholden to Iran, such as Kata'ib Hizbullah (KH), stayed silent, a move that may be in line with its attempt to distance itself from the March 11 missile attack on the military base in Taji, Iraq, even though it commended the attack in a March 12 statement, calling on the perpetrators to identify themselves and offering to protect them.
Top Cleric Al-Sistani: Attack Against Karbala Airport Is Not Justified
The official website of Al-A'taba Al-Hussienyia, which covers activities related to the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, Iraq, and is affiliated with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, issued a statement commenting only on the U.S. bombing of Karbala's airport, a project under the construction and sponsorship Al-Sistani. The statement ceased to comment on the other locations that were targeted in yesterday's U.S. airstrikes.
"This airport is purely civilian, and its construction is supervised by the holy Al-A'taba Al-Hussienyia, and in coordination with several Iraqi companies and by purely Iraqi civilian staff. This blatant attack is not justified," said that statement, which also called on foreign and local media to visit the site to document the damage and examine the civilian nature of the project. The website published photos of the damage.
Al-Sistani has previously condemned the U.S. airstrikes in late December 2019 that targeted Kata'ib Hizbullah fighters in western Iraq and the one that killed Soleimani and Al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
Photos of the Karbala airport project after the U.S. airstrike.
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Iraq Must Be Spared Tension
Known for his fiery anti-U.S. statements, leader of the Sadrist Movement, cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr opted to use a calm tone in his tweeted statement, citing the health crisis in Iraq over the coronavirus as a major challenge that requires more attention. "In the midst of these great disasters that face the world in general and the Iraqi people in particular, Iraq must be spared more tension, conflicts, and disasters," he said.
Al-Sadr urged Iraqis to show discipline and "abandon violence," yet affirming his position by saying that he is "not an advocate of peace with the occupier [U.S.]," but that he is taking into account "the current circumstances surrounding the Iraqi people."
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Al-Nujaba Movement: Resisting The U.S. Occupation Is Now Obligatory
The Iran-backed Al-Nujaba Movement, said in a statement that "the American aggression was a reckless violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a blatant and unparallel interference amid international and media silence."
The statement added that the American attacks "will make the majority of the Iraqi people move from the stage of legitimate resistance to the stage of obligatory resistance," stressing at the same time that the resistance factions are "united in its stance against the U.S. occupation and its crimes and the necessity of removing all U.S. and foreign forces from the land of Iraq."
The statement criticized the Iraqi politicians who defend the U.S., describing them as "coward agents" who "trade in the blood of innocent people in return for the ill-gotten money they receive from the U.S. embassy."
Al-Nujaba' Movement's statement.
Al-Nujaba Movement spokesman Nasr Al-Shammari later tweeted that the U.S. airstrikes were "weak" and "inaccurate" because they relied on old intelligence. "America has proven its failure, its weakness in its response, and its inaccuracy in striking the targets by relying on old false information. The resistance has won and proved it has prepared well and made a balance of deterrence, and it will beat the occupier."
Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq: Better For The U.S. To Reach Peace Deal With Iraqi Government
Iran-backed Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq condemned "in the strongest words the blatant attack by the U.S. occupation forces" on the Iraqi "military forces, including the army, the police, and the PMU, as well as civilian facilities."
The faction, headed by Qais Al-Khazali and designated by the U.S. as a global terrorist, addressed the U.S. government in its statement, saying, "the U.S. administration must know that there is no way it will impose its will and occupation on the brave Iraqi people, regardless of how much military power it possesses, and no matter how much arrogance and aggression it has."
The statement, which stressed "the right of resistance" against the U.S. troops in the aftermath of the Iraqi parliament decision to end their presence, further cited the peace deal between the U.S. and Taliban as an example of how to end the American presence in Iraq. "It is better for the U.S. administration to reach an understanding with the Iraqi government about the mechanisms and details of withdrawing its forces as it did in Afghanistan," it said.
Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq's statement.
Iraqi Government: Violations Against The State Are Weakening Iraq
Iraqi President Barham Saleh who earlier condemned the Taji attack against the coalition forces, equally denounced yesterday's U.S. airstrikes, saying that they were violation of Iraqi sovereignty and pointing out that civilians and several members of the armed forces were killed and wounded in the airstrikes.
Addressing Iran-backed militias as much as the U.S., the statement said the "continuous violations against the state [i.e., the Iraqi government] represent a systematic and dangerous approach aimed at weakening its capabilities and status." The Iraqi president further stressed that the current situation in Iraq "requires national cohesion and the consolidation of ranks around a national project based on the authority of the sovereign state with an independent decision."
In addition to the president's statement, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. and British Ambassadors to Baghdad in protest of the U.S. airstrikes, in which British aircrafts took part as well. Iraq's Joint Operations Command used an angry tone in its statement, saying that the U.S. airstrikes were a "violation of the principals of partnership" between the coalition and Iraqi armed forces. "To say that this attack [i.e., the U.S. airstrikes] came in response to the aggressive action that targeted the Taji camp is a just a pretext that will lead to an escalation and deterioration in the security," said the statement.
Joint Commands' statement.
 See MEMRI JTTM report, Kata'ib Hizbullah Praises Taji Missile Attack As 'Jihadi Operation,' Asks Those Responsible For It To Identify Themselves, Denounces Iraqi Officials For Condemning It, March 12, 2020.
 Imamhussain.org, March 13, 2020.
 Twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr, March 13, 2020.
 Ahlualhaq.com, March 13, 2020.
 Twitter.com/IraqiPresidency, March 13, 2020.
 Ar.mehrnews.com, , March 13, 2020.