Iraq’s powerful Hashd al-Shaabi force, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), has blamed Israel for carrying out a deadly drone attack on Sunday close to the border with Syria.
“As part of the string of Zionist attacks on Iraq, the evil Israeli crows have returned to target the Hashd al-Shaabi, this time with two drones inside Iraqi territory,” the group said in a statement on Sunday.
It said one fighter was killed and another heavily wounded, revising an earlier toll of two dead.
“This blatant attack came with air cover over the area from American planes, in addition to a large balloon to monitor the area near the site of the incident,” the statement added.
It is the first such statement from the group blaming Tel Aviv after several of the paramilitary force’s bases have been hit by suspicious blasts.
The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani, tweeted a poster of himself with the words “These insane operations will surely be the Zionist regime’s last steps”.
قطعا این عملیاتهای دیوانهوار، آخرین دست و پا زدنهای رژیم صهیونیستی خواهد بود. pic.twitter.com/DqTFZn4qJy
— قاسم سلیمانی (@ghasemsoleimane) August 25, 2019
The Israeli military made no immediate comment.
The deaths come after a month of mysterious blasts at PMF arms depots and training camps that some of the force’s top officials initially blamed on the United States.
Explosions have been reported at four other PMF bases since mid-July, and a fifth unit near Baghdad said on Thursday it shot at a surveillance drone flying over its position.
US denies involvement in attacks
The PMF was established from disparate armed groups and volunteers that united to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group’s sweep across a third of Iraq in 2014.
The network is mostly comprised of Shia Muslim fighters and has received Iranian training and advice, but operates officially under Iraq’s armed forces and uses military unit names.
Sunday’s attack is the latest in a string of blasts and drone sightings at PMF bases across the country that have sparked concern of a possible proxy war between Iran, the US and Israel on Iraqi soil – or in its airspace.
PMF chief and Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyadh has said preliminary investigations found the incidents were premeditated but had not yet revealed the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, his deputy Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, whom analysts say holds the real reigns in the PMF, has been unequivocal in blaming Washington.
The Pentagon has denied involvement, and US officials have told the New York Times that Israel had carried out multiple raids in Iraq this month.
Israel has not claimed responsibility but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at involvement last week, saying his country would “act against (Iran) whenever necessary.”
Drones in Syria, Lebanon
Israel has carried out several hundred attacks against Iranian forces and their allies in neighbouring Syria since the beginning of the country’s civil war, saying it won’t tolerate a permanent Iranian presence there or the transfer of advanced weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
On Saturday, the Israeli military attacked targets near Damascus late in what it said was a successful effort to thwart an imminent Iranian drone attack on Israel, stepping up an already heightened campaign against Iranian military activity in the region.
The late-night air attack, which triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, appeared to be one of the most intense attacks by Israeli forces in several years of hits on Iranian targets in Syria.
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, working with allied Shia militias, had been planning to send a number of explosives-laden attack drones into Israel.
However, an Iranian general says Israeli raids in Syria did not cause any damage or casualties among Iranian forces there, calling the Israeli claim a “lie”.
The semi-official ILNA news agency quoted General Mohsen Rezaei on Sunday said that while the Israeli warplanes did conduct an air raid near the Syrian capital, Damascus, its military “advisory centres have not been harmed”.
In a rare admission of member deaths in Syria from Israeli attacks, the head of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement said the Israeli air raid near Damascus had targeted a house containing Hezbollah fighters.
As a result, Hassan Nasrallah said, two Hezbollah members were killed.
Nasrallah also said that Israel was behind sending two drones on the group’s stronghold in a southern suburb of Beirut overnight on Saturday.
The first drone crashed over the roof of a building that was housing Hezbollah’s media office, the movement said.
The second drone had exploded in midair, leading Nasrallah to describe it as a “suicide mission”.
No casualties were reported. Nasrallah warned Israel that it will do what it takes to prevent Israel from sending more drones to Beirut.
The Israeli military said it does not comment on “foreign reports”.