Iraq’s government denied any involvement in Thursday’s US airstrikes in eastern Syria that targeted Iraqi militias. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Iraq helped develop intelligence for the bombing, but Iraq’s Ministry of Defense denied that claim.
In a statement, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense said it was “surprised by the statements of the US Secretary of Defense about the participation of Iraqi intelligence regarding an exchange of intelligence information with Iraq to target Syrian territories.”
The Pentagon said it targeted Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada in Thursday’s bombing, two Shia militias that fall under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF was formed in 2014 to fight ISIS and is sponsored by the Iraqi government, so it would make no sense for Baghdad to collaborate with the US in targeting them.
At this time it’s not clear how many were killed in the strikes. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 22 PMF members were killed, but this is unconfirmed. Iraqi militia sources have only confirmed one death with media outlets.
Somehow, the US is framing these strikes, which involved seven 500 pound bombs, as “defensive” and as a “measured” response to recent rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq. Earlier this month, rockets hit a US base in Erbil, Iraq, killing one contractor.
But Kataib Hezbollah has denied any involvement in recent attacks on US bases, and so far, the Biden administration hasn’t presented any evidence to prove they were responsible. Attacks on the US in Iraq are also blamed on Iran since they support some of Iraq’s Shia militias, but again, no evidence has tied Iran to recent attacks.
Despite a lack of evidence, the narrative that Iran and Kataib Hezbollah were responsible for the Erbil attack is what US media outlets are going with. Reporters asked President Biden what kind of message he meant to send to Iran by bombing Syria. “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said.
Iraqi officials and militia commanders told Middle East Eye that it was unlikely that any Iran-backed factions in Iraq would respond to Thursday’s strike. They said Iran is hoping the situation doesn’t escalate. According to commanders, Iran has called a meeting of Shia Iraqi militia leaders it is associated with to discuss the situation.
While Kataib Hezbollah denied any role in the Erbil attack, they could now be seeking revenge for the Syria airstrikes. The Middle East Eye’s sources said Iran is afraid of an “unpredictable reaction” from Kataib Hezbollah, a sign that Tehran does not have as much control over these militias as the US claims.
Recognizing the danger Biden’s airstrikes put troops in, the US military has raised the threat level for its soldiers and contractors in Iraq.