Ali al-Sistani, a senior spiritual leader and Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, has slammed the US's airstrikes on the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia, demanding that Washington respect Iraq's sovereignty.
In a statement which appeared Monday on the cleric's official website, al-Sistani condemned Sunday's "sinful attack," calling it interference in Iraq's internal affairs, and saying only Iraqi authorities have the right to deal with any "illegal practices carried out by some sides".
The religious officiary also urged the Iraqi government not to allow the country to become the site of a proxy conflict between regional and international powers.
"The Iraqi authorities alone are entitled to deal with these practices and take the necessary measures to prevent them. They are called upon to do so and to ensure Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores, and that others do not interfere in its internal affairs," the statement noted.
Al-Sistani, a powerful Shia leader, has acted as a mediator between the government and civilians in the recent anti-government protests facing Iraq, and has warned that such unrest could be exploited by both "internal and external" forces which seek to damage the country.
US F-15E warplanes struck five Kata'ib Hezbollah militia facilities in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, killing at least 25 militia members and injuring 51 others. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called the "defensive strikes" "successful." The US has said that the attacks were a response to Friday's rocket attack on a US military base in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, which left one US civilian contractor dead and several US service members injured. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Iraqis officials condemned Sunday's airstrikes, with President Barham Salih describing them as "harmful to Iraq" and "unacceptable", while acting Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said they were a "violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation" threatening Iraqi and regional security.
Kata'ib Hezbollah is an Iraqi Shia militia formed in the mid-2000s, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. After the Daesh (ISIS)* terrorist group began taking over wide swathes of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria, Kata'ib Hezbollah joined other Shia militias in the Popular Mobilisation Forces coalition to fight Daesh.
In recent months, Baghdad has faced growing calls from senior Iraqi politicians and lawmakers asking authorities to terminate the 2008 Iraqi-US security agreement and to force the 5,000 or so US troops stationed in the country to withdraw.
* A terrorist group outlawed in Russia and many other countries.