(CNSNews.com) – Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq are threatening to attack the United States and Israel after dozens of their fighters were killed in an airstrike early this week on a base inside Syrian territory, near the Iraq-Syria border.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) said aircraft fired two missiles at a PMF position on Sunday night, killing 22 fighters and wounding a dozen more. A Syrian conflict monitoring group put the fatality figure at more than 50.
The retaliation threats came from PMF members Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, pro-Iranian groups with a history of deadly attacks on U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
The U.S.-led military coalition said that no U.S. or coalition airstrikes had been carried out in the area of Albu Kamal at the time in question. The area is under the control of the Assad regime.
There are strong suspicions that Israel was responsible, not least of all because of comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself.
“Regarding the Syrian front, we are constantly working to prevent Iranian forces and their proxies from establishing a military presence there,” he said during an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers’ graduation ceremony Wednesday.
“We will not allow those who call for our destruction to turn Syria into a base for aggression against Israel,”
Hours before the airstrike, Netanyahu told his cabinet that in phone conversations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian President Vladimir Putin he had “reiterated our guiding principles regarding Syria.”
“First of all, Iran needs to withdraw from all of Syria. Second, we will take action – and are already taking action – against efforts to establish a militarily presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria both close to the border and deep inside Syria. We will act against these efforts anywhere in Syria.”
In line with its usual policy, the IDF did not comment on the airstrike.
Israel has long warned that Iran is seeking to extend a “Shi’ite crescent” sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Through Shi’ite proxies it has considerable sway in Lebanon and Iraq, and is heavily involved in the civil war in Syria, propping up Bashar al-Assad, an adherent of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’ite Islam.
Israel has in the recent past struck Iranian forces in western and southwestern Syria, but is not known before to have attacked its Iraqi proxies, or to have struck targets hundreds of miles further to the east.
The PMF (Hashd al-Shaabi) is an umbrella group of mostly Shi’ite militias which came together in 2015 in response to a fatwa by Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric to help Iraq’s government fight the Sunni jihadists of ISIS.
The Iranian-backed militias in Iraq claim they had crossed into Syria to combat ISIS remnants.
In its warning statement, Kata’ib Hezbollah said it was ready to retaliate against the U.S. and the “Zionists” for the “crime” against its “mujahedeen,” and derided President Trump as an “idiot.”
“The crime of targeting the resistance bases will lead to continued fight against the Zionist regime and the U.S. project,” it said.
Kata’ib Hezbollah said it would determine the identity of the perpetrators of the airstrikes in the coming days and prepare a proportionate response.
In a separate statement, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”) condemned what it called an “act of cowardice” carried out by aircraft “limited to the U.S. and Israel.”
It said its fighters were in Syria with the permission of the Syrian government, to deal with terrorists wanting to infiltrate Iraq. Attacks against it were part of a plot to weaken the forces that are fighting terrorism, it said, echoing charges made by Kata’ib Hezbollah.
‘Infiltrate and undermine’
The two militias have close and longstanding ties to Iran’s Qods Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) division responsible for operations abroad.
The U.S. accuses them of responsibility for deadly attacks on its forces during the Iraq war, as well as sectarian kidnappings and killings.
U.S. commanders blamed the Qods Force and its affiliated Shi’ite militias for the deaths of some 500 U.S. military personnel from 2005 onwards. Many were killed by Iranian-made “explosively formed penetrators,” an especially deadly form of roadside bomb.
The U.S. has designated Kata’ib Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization since 2009.
In a keynote speech on Iran policy last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Tehran of sponsoring “Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty.”
“Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias,” he said.
ISIS has lost most of the territory it captured in Syria and Iraq, but pockets of the jihadists remain in Deir ez-Zor, the oil-rich eastern Syrian province where Monday’s airstrike took place.
Russia-backed Syrian regime forces and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are both fighting against the ISIS holdouts, but generally steering clear of each other on either side of a deconfliction line along the Euphrates River.
Early this week Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, warned that eastern Syria will become “a second Vietnam” for U.S. forces deployed there.