22 Iraqi militiamen killed in eastern Syria air raid
LONDON - More than 20 fighters from an Iraqi paramilitary force part of the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) group were killed in an air raid in eastern Syria.
The bombing raid hit Al-Hari, a town controlled by regional militias fighting in Syria’s complex seven-year war alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The raid slammed into a Syrian regime-controlled position in the border town and left at least 52 fighters dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
Among them were fighters from Iraq’s powerful Popular Mobilsation Forces (PMF), some of whom have crossed into Syria to fight against ISIS.
Both Syrian authorities and Iraqi militia forces pointed the finger at the US-led coalition, which denied it was involved in the attack.
The Iran-backed PMF claimed that “US planes fired two guided missiles at a fixed position of Hashed al-Shaabi units on the border with Syria, killing 22 fighters and wounding 12.”
In a statement, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry expressed “rejection and condemnation of airstrikes targeting troops deployed in areas where they are fighting ISIS, whether in Iraq or Syria.”
The statement said targeting these troops “is a support to ISIS” and called for coordination between the US-led coalition and troops on the ground.
Iraqi warplanes also have occasionally bombed ISIS positions in eastern Syria.
There are, however, Iraqi militiamen who are in Syria to support the Syrian regime against rebel forces but not ISIS.
The coalition’s press office said it had received reports of a strike in the area that had killed and wounded Iraqi fighters, but denied it was involved. “There have been no strikes by US or coalition forces in that area,” it said.
In February, US-led coalition air strikes killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters in Deir Ezzor province, including Russians.
“The strike on Al-Hari produced the highest death toll for regime forces since the February incident,” Observatory head Abdel Rahman said.
The US, however, believes that the latest strike was carried out by Israel.
“We have reasons to believe that it was an Israeli strike,” a US official told (Agence France-Presse AFP) on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli military declined to be drawn on the US claims. “We are not commenting on foreign reports,” a spokeswoman said.
The strike came less than 24 hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would strike Iran’s “proxies” anywhere in Syria.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu reiterated his position that “Iran needs to withdraw from all of Syria”.
“We will take action — and are already taking action — against efforts to establish a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria both close to the border and deep inside Syria,” the prime minister said.
“We will act against these efforts anywhere in Syria.”
The Israeli military has carried out previous strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, but most have been significantly closer to Israel or the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
Last month, Israel launched a large-scale attack on what it said were Iranian targets in Syria, raising fears of a major confrontation.
Those strikes followed a barrage of rockets that Israel said was fired towards its forces in the occupied Golan by Iran from Syria.
Even before that, Israel had been blamed for a series of recent strikes inside Syria that killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged them.
(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)