The US bombed targets in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border on Thursday. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 22 members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were killed in the strikes, although the number is unconfirmed. An Iraqi militia source told Reuters that at least one person was killed in the bombing. The PMF is a group of mostly Shia Iraqi state-sponsored militias that formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.
The US framed the bombing as “defensive,” blaming the groups they targeted for recent rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq, but no evidence has been presented to substantiate the claim. Earlier this month, rockets hit a US base in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing one contractor.
“We’re confident that the target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said of Thursday’s bombing. The Pentagon described the targets as “infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria.”
“Specifically, the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada are both militias under the umbrella of the PMF. Kataib Hezbollah denied any role in the Erbil attack or other recent incidents at US facilities.
“We absolutely did not target Erbil or the Green Zone and have no knowledge of the group that did,” Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Mohi told Reuters, referring to the Green Zone in Baghdad where the US embassy is located. Rockets were fired towards the embassy on Monday, but no casualties were reported.
Mohi said he wants the US to withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops it has in Iraq and believes detente between the US and Iran can lead to that, a sign that Kataib Hezbollah has no interest in escalating tensions. Iran has also denied any role in the Erbil attack. With the Iranians seeking sanctions relief from the new administration, they have no reason to orchestrate attacks on the US in Iraq.
Considering the US has been bombing Iraq for 30 years now, there are many groups inside Iraq that have their own reasons to fire on the US. There are also groups like ISIS that would benefit from a war between the US and Iraq’s Shia militias.
At the end of 2019, the US blamed Kataib Hezbollah for an attack on a base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that killed a US contractor. The Kirkuk attack kicked off the series of events that led to the US assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, who was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the PMF.
Without presenting evidence, the Trump administration blamed Kataib Hezbollah for the Kirkuk attack and bombed members of the militia in Iraq and Syria. The airstrikes killed 25 Kataib Hezbollah fighters, enraging many in Iraq, and demonstrators stormed the US embassy in Baghdad. President Trump then ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. It was later revealed that Iraqi intelligence believed the Kirkuk attack was more likely carried out by ISIS, a group that celebrated Soleimani’s killing.