US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday air strikes on pro-Iran fighters in Iraq and Syria sent a “strong message” not to keep attacking US forces, while Baghdad condemned the overnight aerial assault. The second such deadly raid on pro-Iran targets since US President Joe Biden took office, described by the Pentagon as “retaliatory”, has sparked fears of a new US-Iran escalation amid faltering efforts to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. “This action in self-defence… sends a very important and strong message,” Blinken told reporters on a visit to Rome. “I would hope that the message sent by the strikes… will be heard and deter future action,” he added, referring to repeated attacks against US interests in Iraq that Washington blames on pro-Iran groups. Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi decried the strikes as an “unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security”, while Damascus condemned a violation against both nations. The Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary alliance that includes several Iranian proxies and has become the main power broker in Baghdad, said the strikes killed four of its fighters in the Qaim region, near the border with Syria. The fighters were stationed there to prevent jihadists infiltrating Iraq, the group said, denying that they had taken part in any attacks against US interests or personnel. “We reserve the legal right to respond to these attacks and hold the perpetrators accountable on Iraqi soil,” the Hashed said. The Pentagon said the strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq, all near the common border, and used by militias engaged in drone attacks against US interests in Iraq. ‘Flagrant violation’ Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi Shiite armed factions, were among the “several Iran-backed militia groups” that had used the facilities, the Pentagon said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria, said seven fighters were killed in the strikes and at least six more were wounded.