A senior member of the Iran-backed militia coalition Iraq integrated into its armed forces claimed the group can attack U.S. combat troops and military installations with Iran-made drones, Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported on Monday.
In a television interview with a Rudaw journalist that aired Sunday, Abd al-Rahman al-Jazairi – whose role in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) the outlet did not specify, said that, though they initially acquired the drones from Iran to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), the U.S. targeting of the PMF necessitated a change in target for the military hardware.
“The American presence in Erbil province is problematic, and the US base there is targeting PMF, so the Iranian drones we have are ready for any emergency to strike the American headquarters,” Jazairi said. Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The U.S. maintains a troop presence in Erbil as well as an active consulate, though the State Department notes it is currently only able to provide emergency services. Erbil, situated in Iraq’s north, is the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). While, as with U.S. forces, the PMF fought the Islamic State as the same time the KRG’s Peshmerga did, both have increasingly clashed following the fall of the ISIS “caliphate.”
Jazairi claimed the PMF did not wish to damage internal Iraqi infrastructure, but would not hesitate to do so if provoked.
“We reject any attack on Erbil’s airport altogether,” he said, adding the PMF “will definitely respond” to any attack against it.
Baghdad made the PMF, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an official part of the Iraqi military in 2016 after the group rose to prominence fighting ISIS. The militia group earned praise from U.S. military leaders for its role in defending Baghdad from the jihadist incursion. PMF leaders, before and after that incident, threatened U.S. forces in Iraq with violent action. Several member groups of the PMF are U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.
The Iran-backed PMF worked closely with the Quds Force, part of the U.S.-designated terrorist organization the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a wing of the Iranian armed forces. The January 3, 2020, airstrike that neutralized Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani also took out Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the PMF group Hezbollah Brigades. Then-President Donald Trump ordered the attack, following a PMF effort to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. PMF members spray-painted “Soleimani is our commander” on the building during that incident.
Jazairi’s bellicose statements toward U.S. forces come as the PMF faces mounting scrutiny from Baghdad and the general Iraqi public. Iraqi security forces arrested PMF leader Qassem Mahmoud Karim Musleh on Wednesday for his alleged involvement in attacks on the Ain al-Assad airbase in March of this year. One day prior, mass demonstrations in Baghdad materialized in which protesters demanded accountability for the murderers of prominent activists in the country. Musleh stood accused of directly orchestrating the deaths of two such dissidents, Fahim al-Taie and Ihab al-Wazni.
The PMF’s outsized influence on the government has allowed it to enjoy effective legal immunity. Following Musleh’s arrest, the group vowed to secure his release. Images on social media showed PMF militia units entering the area and surrounding the prime minister’s office on Wednesday. Despite conflicting reports about his impending release, Musleh appears to remain in Iraqi custody.