Baghdad repudiated recent Iraqi media reports claiming U.S. warplanes launched lethal airstrikes in Anbar province against an Iraqi-sanctioned umbrella organization for mainly Shiite militias backed by Iran, Bas News reported Monday.
“Several Iraqi news channels reported earlier that a US airstrike near Sarsar lake of Anbar province had killed at least 30 Hashd al-Shaabi fighters. The war media cell of Iraqi defense ministry said in a statement that after investigations, the reports were found ‘untrue,'” Bas News revealed.
The Bas News report came a couple of days after the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) denied that the Shiite militia organization, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces/Units (PMF/U) or Hashd al-Shaabi, “blocked” American troops from the alliance from carrying out a military inspection in Iraq’s Anbar province, which borders Syria.
On Saturday, Voice of America (VOA) reported:
In an email to VOA, the U.S.-led international coalition’s Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) said the operation in western Anbar earlier this week was coordinated with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the purpose of it was to survey Iraqi border security posts with Syria as a part of the ongoing effort to defeat IS [the Islamic State].
“This survey was planned, coordinated, and conducted with the ISF, and occurred without incident,” the U.S.-led coalition told VOA. “Coalition forces and the ISF work together to secure the borders of Iraq, protecting the people of Iraq and supporting security that ensures the lasting defeat of ISIS.”
The coalitions’ response came after the PMF claimed on January 15 that it prevented American troops with the U.S.-led alliance from carrying out a “suspicious reconnaissance” operation on the Iraqi border with Syria.
In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Iraq last month, during which he stressed there are no plans to pull out the estimated 5,000 American troops from Iraq, some PMF fighters renewed their threats to push out the United States service members by force.
Baghdad legalized the PMF as a component of the Iraqi security forces after the Shiite fighters helped the U.S.-led coalition decimate the ISIS territorial caliphate in Iraq, prompting some American military officials to praise the militiamen. Nevertheless, the Pentagon’s inspector general and other U.S. government officials have warned that the PMF poses a threat to American troops in Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon IG noted that the Shiite fighters “likely” carried out two recent attacks against U.S. targets: mortars that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and rockets fired at the Basrah Airport near the U.S. Consulate General.
According to various estimates, there are up to 150,000 PMF fighters in Iraq. The PMF has reportedly amassed its presence along the Syrian border, particularly in the Anbar province town of al-Qaim, a move that allows them to fuel Iran’s support for dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Reuters reported last month.
In Syria, a U.S. warplane shot down a drone reportedly used by Iranian-backed Shiite militias after it fired on American forces and their allies in June 2017, marking the first confrontation between the two sides.
Last month, Reuters described the situation in Anbar as the “wild west,” adding:
South of the [Anbar province] town there are signs of growing PMF control and an increasingly crowded battlefield. The watchtowers of Iraq’s border guard which nominally polices the frontier disappear, and the paramilitaries are the only force. Flags of Shi’ite factions fly at outposts a short drive from a one of the U.S. bases.
Last June, tensions between the PMF and the U.S. troops intensified when the Shiite fighters accused the Americans of carrying out an airstrike near the Syrian border that killed 22 of the Iran-linked forces, something the American-led coalition denied.
Despite the menace posed by the PMF, a Pentagon spokesman told Breitbart News in November that fighting the Shiite fighters is not part of the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq.
The Pentagon claims it only provides support to PMF fighters vetted for links to Iran.
This month, the Washington Post acknowledged that the PMF is fueling local resentment in Iraq’s Sunni communities that could lead to an Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) revival. The PMF is “enjoying unprecedented military and political power in Iraq” after it won nearly a third of the seats in parliament during the recent elections, the Post noted.
High-ranking U.S. military officials have conceded that not all PMF factions are loyal to Baghdad.