Iraqi Militia Leader May Be Among Six Killed in Drone Strike in Baghdad, Officials Say

Six members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi militia organization with ties to Iran, were killed in a drone strike in northern Baghdad on Friday, multiple officials told Newsweek Friday evening. The sources said the operation was targeting Imam Ali Brigades and its leader, Shubul al-Zaidi. The U.S. Department of Defense has denied involvement in the strike; it remains unclear whether another branch of government or international partner may have been involved.

The militia denied that its leader had been killed in the attack, which was reported by Reuters and the Associated Press.

Reuters cited an Iraqi army source who said the airstrikes near camp Taji north of Baghdad targeted Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces—an umbrella group of Iran-backed Shi'ite militias—and had killed six people and critically wounded three. The Associated Press said five people had been killed.

The Popular Mobilization Forces told Newsweek that an air raid targeted one of their convoys near Taji Stadium in Baghdad, but said it was a "humanitarian convoy" and have so far denied the deaths of Zaidi, along with Saraya al-Khorasani leader Hamid al-Jazaery and another militia leader Raed al-Karawi.

An account apparently belonging to Zaidi also issued a statement denying "the news of the martyrdom of Shubul al-Zaidi published shortly before." The account said "this news is not true, praise be to God, Lord of the worlds."

Later that day, Iraq's military denied that an air strike against a medical convoy in Taji had taken place, Reuters reported.

On Saturday morning, spokesperson Col. Myles B. Caggins III sent out a tweet stating that the U.S. Department of Defense's Combined Joint Task Force-International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve "did NOT conduct airstrikes near Camp Taji (north of Baghdad) in recent days."

FACT: The Coalition @CJTFOIR did NOT conduct airstrikes near Camp Taji (north of Baghdad) in recent days.

— OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto (@OIRSpox) January 4, 2020

The operation came one day after President Donald Trump approved a strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani.

Speaking Friday from his Florida resort in Mar-a-Lago, Trump said that the strike that killed Soleimani was ordered "to stop a war" and prevent attacks on American personnel.

"Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him," Trump said, speaking to reporters. "We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war."

Iranian officials have sworn revenge, and Trump's latest strike sent already-soaring tensions into a potential tailspin.

iraq, imam, ali, brigades, militia
Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade take part in a military parade on August 8, 2015 in the mostly Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf. The group was one of many Popular Mobilization Forces militias that battled ISIS with Iran's support as a U.S.-led coalition also fought the jihadis. HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images

The Imam Ali Brigades were one of the mostly Shiite Muslim militias to take arms, forming the Popular Mobilization Forces in response to the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group's partial takeover of Iraq in 2013 and 2014. Newsweek spoke to one of its most notable commanders Ayyub Faleh Hassan al-Rubaie, also known as "the Archangel of Death" in June 2017, a month before ISIS was defeated at Iraq's second city of Mosul.

Several Popular Mobilization Forces militias, many of which were supported by Iran, also fought U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion that toppled longtime leader Saddam Hussein. One such group, Kataib Hezbollah, was blamed by the U.S. for a rocket attack last week attack that killed a Pentagon contractor. The U.S. retaliated with airstrikes that killed up to 27 fighters in positions on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

The operation was not coordinated with the Iraqi government—an ally of both the U.S. and Iran—and fueled anger among pro-Popular Mobilization Forces supporters, who stormed the gates of Washington's embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve. They set fires and defaced entry structures for two days. Iran offered support for the demonstrations, but a day after they subsided and additional troops arrived, Soleimani was killed, alongside two other Popular Mobilization Forces officials, deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and protocol head Mohammed Redha al-Jabri.

The Iraqi government condemned this strike as well, with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi praising Soleimani and Muhandis' efforts in combatting ISIS. He regarded the latter's death as "an aggression against Iraq, the state, the government and people" and called for an emergency parliament session to discuss protecting Iraq's sovereignty.

CORRECTION: January 4, 11:44 AM ET: This story and headline have been changed to reflect that the strike was not conducted by a U.S. drone, as the original version stated.

UPDATE: January 4, 10:50 PM ET: This story was updated to include a Saturday Reuters report that Iraq's military denied that an air strike had taken place on a medical convey in Taji. Further edits were made to clarify the timeline of events and the existence of contradictory reports.

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