U.S. Drone Strike Kills Iranian-Aligned Militia Leader In Baghdad

This marks the first U.S. airstrike in Baghdad since Iranian-backed militias began attacking U.S. forces in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

byHoward Altman|
U.S. drone strike kills top Iranian-aligned militia leader in Baghdad
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U.S. military officials have acknowledged responsibility for a drone strike Thursday in Baghdad that killed a top leader of an Iranian-backed militia group and several others.

“The United States is continuing to take action to protect our forces in Iraq and Syria by addressing the threats they face,” a U.S. defense official told The War Zone when asked to confirm American involvement in the attack that killed Mushtaq Taleb al-Saidi, deputy head of operations for an Iranian-backed militia working with the Iraqi government.

The U.S. has carried out at least five previous waves of airstrikes in response to nearly 120 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17. That includes one Nov. 21 south of Baghdad and several across Iraq on Dec. 25 that "likely killed a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants" after they attacked a U.S. facility in Erbil, according to CENTCOM. However, this is the first such strike in the Iraqi capital itself and a seeming escalation of the brewing proxy fight between the U.S. and Iranian-backed militias.

Iraqi officials are furious, likening the strike to a terrorist attack.

“In a blatant aggression and violation of Iraq's sovereignty and security, a drone conducted an act akin to terrorist activities by targeting one of the security headquarters in the capital, Baghdad, today,” said Iraqi Special Forces Maj. Gen. Yehia Rasool, the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman. “This act resulted in casualties and is unequivocally condemned. The Iraqi Armed Forces hold the Global Coalition Forces responsible for this unwarranted attack on an Iraqi security entity that is operating within the powers authorized by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.”

The attack “undermines the previously established understandings between the Iraqi Armed Forces and the Global Coalition Forces,” Rasool continued. “We view this action as a dangerous escalation and assault on Iraq, diverging from the spirit and the text of the mandate and the mission for which the Global Coalition was established in Iraq. God's Mercy for the martyrs and speedy recovery for the wounded of this attack.”

The Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of militias that is nominally under at least some degree of control of the Iraqi military, announced in a statement that al-Saidi, its deputy head of operations in Baghdad also known as “Abu Taqwa”, was killed “as a result of brutal American aggression,” The Associated Press reported.

One of the officials told the AP that Saidi was driving into the garage of the headquarters affiliated with the al-Nujaba militia, one of the members of the PMF, along with another militia official when the car was hit, killing both.

The drone fired at least two weapons at a building in eastern Baghdad used by al-Nujaba, according to Reuters, which reported that the strike killed four people and wounded six others.

The attack comes at a time of increased tension throughout the region in the wake of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war as well as mounting Iraqi efforts to get the U.S. to leave that nation. A loose-knit group of Iranian-backed militias calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has claimed credit for scores of attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq and Syria. A U.S. defense official told The War Zone that 74 U.S. troops have been injured in 119 such attacks. One of those troops was seriously injured Dec. 25 during the attack in Erbil, the official added. Our colleagues at Task & Purpose profiled that soldier in a story you can read here.

As Reuters noted, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudan has limited control over the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, which he needed to help win power a year ago and now form a powerful bloc in his government. This attack will likely add pressure to efforts to oust the U.S., which still has about 2,500 troops in Iraq.

How it affects the ongoing U.S.-led fight against ISIS remains to be seen. The group remains active across the region and took credit for the deadly bombing yesterday of a memorial in Iran to Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leader was killed four years ago in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. The fact that today's U.S. strike, which was glaringly similar to the one that killed Soleimani, comes just a day after the anniversary of that attack is also of note. It was seen by many in Iraq as a gross disregard for Iraqi sovereignty or worse, and drew extreme ire of those tied to Shiite militias.

The U.S. would have been fully aware of these parallels and still decided the strike was worth executing, regardless of the political and security fallout.

Update 1:30 PM Eastern -

A U.S. defense official provided additional details about this strike.

“On January 4, 2023 at approximately 12:00 PM (Iraq time), U.S. forces took necessary and proportionate action against Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari (a.k.a Abu-Taqwa), who was a Harakat-al-Nujaba leader. Abu-Taqwa was actively involved in planning and carrying out attacks against American personnel.  The strike also killed one other Harakat-al-Nujaba member. This strike was taken in self-defense.  No civilians were harmed.  No infrastructure or facilities were struck.”

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com