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Airstrike in central Baghdad kills Iran-backed militia leader as regional tensions escalate

The Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of militias under the control of the Iraqi military, announced that its deputy head of operations in Baghdad had been killed ‘as a result of brutal American aggression’

The Popular Mobilization Force in Baghdad, Iraq
Ambulances line up in front of a headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Force after it was hit by an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.Hadi Mizban (AP)

A U.S. airstrike on the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia in central Baghdad on Thursday killed a high-ranking militia commander, militia officials said.

Thursday’s strike comes amid mounting regional tensions fueled by the Israel-Hamas war and fears that it could spill over into surrounding countries. It also coincides with a push by Iraqi officials for US-led coalition forces to leave the country.

The Popular Mobilization Force, or PMF, a coalition of militias that is nominally under the control of the Iraqi military, announced in a statement that its deputy head of operations in Baghdad, Mushtaq Taleb al-Saidi, or “Abu Taqwa,” had been killed “as a result of brutal American aggression.”

A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide information that has not yet been publicly released confirmed that U.S. forces conducted a strike on a vehicle in Baghdad on Monday against the group Harakat al-Nujaba. The group, one of the militias within PMF, was designated a terrorist organization by Washington in 2019.

Iraqi military spokesman Yehia Rasool said in a statement that the Iraqi army blames the U.S.-led International Coalition Forces for the “unprovoked attack on an Iraqi security body operating in accordance with the powers granted to it by” the Iraqi military.

The primary mission of the U.S.-led coalition is to fight the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist militant group that continues to carry out periodic attacks in Iraq despite having lost its hold on the territory it once controlled in 2017. Since then, the coalition has transitioned from a combat role to an advisory and training mission.

The PMF, a group of Iranian-backed, primarily Shiite militias, were also key in the fight against Islamic State after it overran much of Iraq in 2014. The PMF is officially under the command of the Iraqi army, but in practice the militias operate independently.

Thursday’s strike killed two people and wounded five, according to two militia officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

One of the officials said al-Saidi was driving into the garage of the headquarters affiliated with the Harakat al-Nujaba militia, along with another militia official, when the car was hit, killing both.

Heavy security was deployed around the location of the strike on Baghdad’s Palestine Street, and Iraqi war planes could be seen flying overhead. An Associated Press photographer was eventually allowed access to the scene of the strike, where he saw the remains of the charred car.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, a group of Iranian-backed militias calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has carried out more than 100 attacks on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

The group has said the attacks are in retaliation for Washington’s support of Israel in the war against Hamas that has killed more than 20,000 people in Gaza, and that they aim to push U.S. forces out of Iraq. Thursday’s strike is likely to increase calls for a U.S. departure.

Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani — who came to power with the backing of Iran-linked political factions but has also attempted to maintain good relations with the U.S. — said that his government is “is proceeding to end the presence of the international coalition forces.”

The strike also comes two days after a suspected Israeli drone strike in the suburbs of Beirut killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh Arouri.

Asked whether Israel had involvement in Thursday’s strike in Baghdad, an Israeli military spokesperson declined to comment.

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