The US Defense Department appeared to distance itself from recent attacks against Shiite militia bases in Iraq attributed to Israel, backing Baghdad’s sovereignty and promising to cooperate with Iraqi investigations.
Baghdad has fumed over a series of mysterious attacks on the Iran-backed Popular Mobilizations Forces recently, which have been attributed to Israel with tacit US support.
“We support Iraqi sovereignty and have repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan R. Hoffman said in a statement late Monday.
“The government of Iraq has the right to control their own internal security and protect their democracy.”
Earlier Monday, a powerful bloc in Iraq’s parliament called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq after the wave of airstrikes blamed on Israel targeted Iran-backed militias in the country.
The Fatah Coalition said on Monday it holds the United States fully responsible for the reported Israeli strikes, “which we consider to be a declaration of war on Iraq and its people.”
The coalition is a parliament bloc representing Iran-backed paramilitary militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
A day earlier, the latest drone strike, in the western Iraqi town of al-Qaim, killed a commander with the forces.
Two PMF officials said the vehicles targeted in the strike were being used to transport weapons. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists about the matter.
The Fatah Coalition statement added that US troops were no longer needed in Iraq.
In its response Monday, the Pentagon denied US involvement in the attacks, saying “US forces did not conduct the recent attack on a convoy or any recent attacks that resulted in the explosion of ammunition storage facilities in Iraq. Statements to the contrary are false, misleading, and inflammatory.”
It added: “As guests of Iraq, US forces operate at the invitation of the Iraqi government and comply with all laws and directions. Furthermore, we are fully cooperating with the investigation.”
Israel’s military has said it does not comment on “foreign reports,” but several Israeli leaders have hinted at Jerusalem’s involvement in the strikes. On Monday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said Israel was responsible for some, but not all, of the strikes around the region blamed on it.
Two unnamed senior US officials told the New York Times last week that Israel was responsible for at least two attacks on PMF positions.
Last week, a PMF deputy blamed the US for allowing Israel to carry out a drone strike on a base north of Baghdad. However his commander later walked back the statement, blaming only foreign forces, but not naming a specific actor.
A number of PMF bases have been targeted in recent weeks in strikes attributed to the Israeli military, apparently as part of Jerusalem’s campaign to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in the region.
The PMF was established in 2014 from disparate armed groups and volunteers to fight the Islamic State extremist group.
It has received Iranian training but operates officially under Iraq’s armed forces and uses military unit names.
The field commander killed in the Sunday strike, identified as “logistical support chief” for the group’s Brigade 45, Kazem Mohsen, was buried Monday morning near Baghdad.
“Hundreds participated… in the funeral procession this morning for Kazem Mohsen,” also known as Abu Ali al-Dabi, the Popular Mobilization Forces said in a statement.
The PMF said one other fighter was severely wounded in the attack on Brigade 45, a unit based about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Iraq’s western border with Syria.
PMF’s insistence that the deadly drone attack was carried out by Israel was the first time it directly blamed the Jewish state for the air campaign.
“As part of the string of Zionist attacks on Iraq, the evil Israeli crows have returned to target the Hashed al-Shaabi [PMF], this time with two drones inside Iraqi territory,” the statement said.
Brigade 45 is one of several units made up of Kataib Hezbollah fighters, designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization.
A military source from Kataib Hezbollah told AFP on Sunday that Abu Ali al-Dabi was a member of the unit’s rocket squad.
“He fought in Syria and was previously detained by the Americans,” the source said.