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Iranian strikes in Iraq stoke fears of further Middle East escalation

Kurdish prime minister Masrour Barzani said Iran's allegations that it struck an Israeli ‘espionage’ site in Iraq's Kurdistan region on Jan. 16 were "baseless." (Video: Reuters)
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DUBAI — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired ballistic missiles at what it said were members of the Islamic State group in Syria and an Israeli spy site in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, according to statements published by state media.

Kurdish officials have denied the claims about the strikes in the city of Irbil in northern Iraq, saying four civilians were killed and six others wounded.

The attacks, alongside new U.S. strikes against Iranian-backed militants in Yemen, come amid escalating tensions in the Middle East over Israel’s war in Gaza and growing fears of a regionwide conflict. Militant groups with links to Iran have stepped up attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets since Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, but, until late Monday, Tehran had largely avoided direct involvement in the hostilities.

The strikes in Syria hit “the commanders and the main agents” behind two explosions earlier this month in the city of Kerman that killed at least 95 people, according to the Revolutionary Guard statement. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Kerman attack, and Iranian officials pledged to punish the perpetrators.

Iran said it used ballistic missiles to destroy an Israeli ‘espionage’ site in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, according to state media. (Video: Reuters)

In Iraq, the missiles struck the “espionage headquarters” of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency that had been used to plan “terrorist” acts against Iran, the Revolutionary Guard statement said. Iraqi and Kurdish officials denied the claims. The Israeli prime minister’s press office declined to comment on Iran’s assertions.

On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani called the attack on Irbil “an act of aggression against Iraq and a setback to the historical relationship with Iran.” He pledged to “take all legal and diplomatic response measures.”

Many Iraqis view the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country as increasingly destabilizing, and calls for their withdrawal have increased since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Sudani said he fears that U.S. troops could be used as an excuse by other countries to escalate the current crisis.

About 2,500 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq to prevent the Islamic State from regaining territory there and in neighboring Syria. The Pentagon has said there are no plans for their withdrawal.

The Kurdish Regional Security Council said Iranian forces “always use baseless excuses to attack Irbil.” It added in a statement that the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan is in a “stable region and has never been a threat to any party.”

“This is a blatant violation of the sovereignty of the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, and the federal government and the international community must not remain silent regarding this crime,” the council said.

Iraq recalled its ambassador from Tehran following the strikes, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. The ministry also said Iran’s top diplomat in Baghdad was summoned over the attack and handed a “protest note.”

The Kurdistan regional parliament’s deputy speaker, Hemin Hawrami, identified the dead as an Iraqi businessman and his family. Condemning the attack, Masrour Barzani, Kurdistan’s prime minister, said on social media that he will work with international allies over the next few days “to stop these brutal attacks.”

The strike took place in an area on the outskirts of Irbil near a U.S. Consulate building that is under construction. A U.S. Consulate currently operates inside the city.

The Iranian missile volley follows a series of escalatory attacks in recent weeks. Iran vowed to take revenge for the killing of a senior Revolutionary Guard officer in Syria last month. The United States carried out airstrikes in Baghdad in December targeting Iranian-backed militant groups linked to attacks on U.S. forces.

The United States also launched a new round of strikes Tuesday on Houthi militants in Yemen, U.S. officials said, the latest effort to deter the Iran-aligned fighters from attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian warned the United States and its allies Monday against targeting Yemen.

U.S.-led coalition strikes Iran-aligned Houthi militants in Yemen

No U.S. personnel or facilities were targeted or damaged in Iraq or Syria, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the United States “strongly condemns Iran’s attacks in Erbil today and offers condolences to the families of those who were killed.”

“We oppose Iran’s reckless missile strikes, which undermine Iraq’s stability,” Miller said in a statement.

American troops in Iraq and Syria have faced at least 131 attacks by Iranian-backed militant groups since Oct. 17, according to Pentagon data.

In a separate incident Tuesday, counterterrorism forces in Kurdistan said they shot down three “bomb-laden drones” attempting to target a U.S. military base near Irbil’s international airport, an area that has repeatedly been attacked by Iranian-backed Shiite militants. No group immediately took responsibility for the failed attack.

Salim reported from Baghdad, Melnick from Washington and Masih from Seoul. Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

Israel-Gaza war

U.S. naval forces launched three additional strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen on Friday morning, targeting anti-ship missiles, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. In the Gaza Strip, internet and cellphone communications were gradually restored, ending a week-long outage that kept most of the territory’s 2.1 million people cut off, amid a war and humanitarian crisis.

Pakistan launched retaliatory strikes Thursday on militants in Iran, its Foreign Ministry said, as tensions in the Middle East appeared to be spreading.

Oct. 7 attack: Hamas spent more than a year planning its assault on Israel. A Washington Post video analysis shows how Hamas exploited vulnerabilities created by Israel’s reliance on technology at the “Iron Wall,” the security barrier bordering the Gaza Strip, to carry out the deadliest attack in Israel’s history. Stock traders earned millions of dollars anticipating the Hamas attack, a study found.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has a complicated history. Understand what’s behind the Israel-Gaza war and read about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.