BAGHDAD – The leader of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia has vowed to retaliate against America for the deaths of four of his men in a U.S. airstrike along the Iraq-Syria border last month, saying it will be a military operation everyone will talk about.
Abu Alaa al-Walae, commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad that the electoral victory of Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as president will strengthen Iran-backed militant groups throughout the Middle East for the next four years.
Al-Walae, who rarely gives interviews to foreign media organizations, spoke to the AP on Monday in an office in a Baghdad neighborhood along the Tigris River.
On June 27, U.S. Air Force planes carried out airstrikes near the Iraq-Syria border against what the Pentagon said were facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups to support drone strikes inside Iraq. Four militiamen were killed.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sanctioned umbrella of mostly Shiite militias — including those targeted by the U.S. strikes — said their men were on missions to prevent infiltration by the Islamic State group and denied the presence of weapons warehouses.
U.S. troops in eastern Syria came under rocket fire the day after the airstrikes, with no reported casualties.
The U.S. has blamed Iran-backed militias for attacks — most of them rocket strikes — that have targeted the American presence in Baghdad and military bases across Iraq. More recently, the attacks have become more sophisticated, with militants using drones.
Late Tuesday, the counter-terrorism unit in Iraq's northern Kurdish-run region reported a drone attack on Irbil airport, near where U.S. forces are based. The statement by the counter-terrorism unit said the attack caused no damage, though the missiles fell in open fields and set fires.
Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition, said in a tweet that an unmanned aircraft system landed in the vicinity of the air base in Irbil. Initial reports, he said, indicate there were no injuries or damage.
U.S. military officials have grown increasingly alarmed over drone strikes targeting U.S. military bases in Iraq, more common since a U.S. drone killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last year. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack. The strike drew the ire of mostly Shiite Iraqi lawmakers and prompted parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country.
In mid-April, an explosives-laden drone targeted the military section of the international airport in Irbil, causing no casualties or damages. The base also hosts American troops.
U.S. officials said Iran-backed militias have conducted at least five drone attacks since April.
After midnight Monday, a drone was shot down near the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. There were no casualties. Two U.S. military officials said the drone was launched by Iranian proxies, adding that it was weaponized with explosives and was loitering over the U.S.-led coalition base in Baghdad.
The officials said it was too early to identify the type of the drone. The U.S. Embassy said defense systems at the compound “engaged and eliminated an airborne threat.” The statement added that “we are working with our Iraqi partners to investigate” the attack.
The bearded al-Walae, wearing a black shirt and trousers and an olive-green baseball cap, hinted that his militiamen might use drones in future attacks. He did not go into details. When asked if they used drones in the past against American troops in Iraq, he gave no straight answer and moved to other subjects.
“We want an operation that befits those martyrs,” he said referring to the four fighters killed in late June. “Even if it comes late, time is not important.”
“We want it to be an operation in which everyone says they have taken revenge on the Americans,” al-Walae said. “It will be a qualitative operation (that could come) from the air, the sea, along Iraq’s border, in the region or anywhere. It’s an open war.”
Al-Walae spoke in an office decorated with a poster of Soleimani. On a table next to him, a framed photo shows al-Walae standing next to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.
Al-Walae praised Iran’s new president, Raisi, who is scheduled to take office next month, saying Iran-backed militant groups “will have their best times.”
Days after he was elected last month, Raisi said in his first remarks after the vote that he rejects the possibility of meeting with President Joe Biden or negotiating Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support of regional militias.
Al-Walae, who was once held prisoner by U.S. troops in Iraq, boasted that his men were among the first to go to neighboring Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces in 2012, a year after the civil war there broke out. He said their first mission was to protect a Shiite holy shrine south of the capital, Damascus. They later fought in different parts of Syria.
Iran-backed fighters from throughout the region have joined Syria’s conflict, helping tip the balance of power in Assad’s favor. Thousands of Iran-backed fighters remain in Syria, many of them deployed close to the Iraqi border in the towns of Boukamal and Mayadeen.
Al-Walae also said he doesn't expect Iraq’s parliamentary elections to take place on time in October, saying they might be postponed until April next year. He attributed the delay to the deep crisis the country is experiencing, including severe electricity cuts during the scorching summer.
Associated Press writer James La Porta in Washington contributed to this report.