Airstrike in central Baghdad kills Iran-backed militia leader

by Tommy Grant

A U.S. airstrike in Baghdad on Thursday killed a high-ranking leader of an Iran-backed militia involved in recent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon has confirmed.

The strike targeted Mushtaq Talib al-Saidi, also known as Abu Taqwa, the leader of the Harakat al-Nujaba militia group, Defense Department spokesman Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. The attack also killed another militia member.

“It is important to note that the strike was taken in self defense [and] that no civilians were harmed and that no infrastructure or facilities were struck,” Ryder added.

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

Officials from the Popular Mobilization Force, or PMF, a coalition of militias that is nominally under the control of the Iraqi military, were first to announce that its deputy head of operations in Baghdad, who they identified as Abu Taqwa, had been killed “as a result of brutal American aggression.”

That 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 the 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, which has killed more than 20,000 people in Gaza, according to reports. The group has stated 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.

Associated Press staff writers Ali Jabar in Baghdad, Tara Copp in Washington, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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