Shiite Militia Blames U.S. for Attack That Killed Dozens on the Syria-Iraq Border

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Fighters from Iraqi Shiite group Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada gather near Falluja, Iraq, on May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has denied killing dozens of Shiite militia fighters in an artillery attack near the al-Tanf border.

The Iran-backed Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigade operating along the border between Iraq and Syria had earlier accused the U.S. of the killings. The Associated Press reported that more than 40 of the fighters were killed in the area. According to local media, as many as 85 were also wounded.

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Conflicting reports about the deaths had emerged from the hinterland of Iraq’s eastern Anbar province and the no-man’s land of the Syrian frontier, where the U.S.-backed coalition and Iraqi militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, battle the Islamic State militant group. It is unclear whether the deaths were caused by artillery bombardment, airstrikes or ISIS suicide bombing.

Yesterday, ISIS claimed it was responsible for killing 68 in a single suicide bombing and raid in the area, identifying those killed as “soldiers.” The militants, who regularly inflate the number of victims when disseminating information through their self-styled Aamaq news agency, claimed they had targeted an Iraqi military barracks.

However, an ISIS announcement on social media received no response from the U.S. coalition or Popular Mobilization Units. Instead, the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigade issued a statement a day later vowing revenge against coalition forces for the attack on its fighters.

The Iranian semi-official Tasnim news outlet, which has close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, carried a statement from the brigade. It declared that the attack, which it said had been carried out using U.S. artillery, would “not go unpunished.” The militia added its goal was to “protect the common borders of Iraq with Syria," and the U.S. should be prevented from intervening in the area.

Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, tweeted that accusations of strikes against the Popular Mobilization Units near the Iraq-Syria border were inaccurate, reiterating that no such attack had taken place there.

ISIS was able to move unchallenged across the frontier between Syria and Iraq when it captured vast swathes of territory in Iraq’s Sunni triangle in the summer of 2014, eventually threatening the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

The Popular Mobilization Units, many of them backed by Iran, were a direct response to the ISIS expansion and the militias battled against the militant group across Anbar and Salaheddin provinces.

The battle for Mosul lasted nine months and forced hundreds of civilians to flee ISIS’s brutal rule, an Iraqi ground offensive and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Aside from ISIS’s barbaric treatment of civilians and opponents in the city, rights groups have criticized the U.S.-led coalition for its bombing campaign, which left hundreds of civilians dead in the Iraqi city.

They have also taken aim at the Iraqi forces, accusing them of severe human rights abuses, particularly against Sunni civilians and suspected members of ISIS attempting to flee the city.