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Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, pictured here in October 2019, on Thursday indicated the U.S. is willing to launch pre-emptive strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, pictured here in October 2019, on Thursday indicated the U.S. is willing to launch pre-emptive strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Nicole Meija/Joint Base Andrews/cc)

'War Hawks Must be Celebrating': Trump's Defense Secretary Claims US Ready to Strike Iranian-Backed Militias in Iraq

"We're back to preemptive wars now! Dick Cheney might as well be president."

Eoin Higgins

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Thursday announced that "the game has changed" for how President Donald Trump's administration deals with Iran, indicating a willingness to use pre-emptive strikes against militias tied to the Persian Gulf state—comments that provoked immediate pushback from progressives and anti-war advocates. 

"We're back to preemptive wars now!" tweeted Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft vice president Trita Parsi. "Dick Cheney might as well be president."

"The war hawks must be celebrating," Parsi added.

According to Politico, Esper made the comments as a warning against the militant group Kataib Hezbollah, which he accused of attacking the 104-acre U.S. embassy in Iraq on Tuesday.

"There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks," Esper told Politico. "If we get word of attacks, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives. The game has changed."

Journalist Walker Bragman posited a different theory on the motivation for the attack, one based on the past two decades of U.S. involvement in the region. 

"Protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, demanding a withdraw of forces after 17 YEARS of occupation during which time, the U.S.-backed government has failed to provide for the basic needs of its people," said Bragman. "But yeah, Iran's totally to blame for it..."

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley added that the group would be heading into a "buzz saw" if it attacked the embassy, but warned of other potential threats to U.S. military personnel in Iraq:

Kataib Hezbollah had been escalating the frequency and size of its rocket attacks against U.S. bases since at least October, Esper and Milley said, culminating in last week's strike. "We know that the intent of this last attack was in fact to kill" Americans, Milley said, unlike a string of smaller rocket attacks throughout the year. He did not say how he knew that or whether Iran directly ordered the lethal attack.

Progressives pushed back on social media. 

"Military strikes in Iraq and more troops to the Middle East is dangerous foreign policy and the OPPOSITE of what is needed," tweeted CodePink's Ariel Gold. "U.S. military should LEAVE Iraq, and Trump administration must make peace with Iran."

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