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Iran-backed fighters ‘killed’ in Syria air strikes after Iraq base attack

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-allied Kurdish-led rebel group, patrol through the Islamic State-held village of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. SDF officials have said the extremists are clinging to an area less than a square kilometer in the village of Baghouz and preventing more than 1,000 civilians from leaving the area. (Aboud Hamam/DPA/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Air strikes in eastern Syria have killed 26 fighters from an Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary group following a deadly attack on U.S.-led coalition forces in neighboring Iraq.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the March 12 strikes near the border town of Albu Kamal were probably carried out by the coalition.

But a spokesman for the coalition said in an statement to AFP that it “did not conduct any strikes in Syria or Iraq last night.”

Syrian state media reported that unidentified jets hit targets southeast of Albu Kamal with only material damage.

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However, the Observatory said camps of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, were hit in the strikes, which came after a rocket attack on the Camp Taji military base, located less than 30 kilometers north of Baghdad.

The coalition said two American and one British service personnel were killed and another 12 were injured by the barrage of Katyusha rockets that were launched from a lorry later discovered several kilometers from the base.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab “underscored that those responsible for the attacks must be held accountable,” the State Department said of a phone call between the two.

Iraq’s military said caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi ordered an investigation into what he called “a very serious security challenge and hostile act.”

No-one claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, but the United States has accused Iran-backed militias of previous attacks on Iraqi bases hosting coalition forces.

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of Central Command, told a Senate hearing that the attack was still being investigated.

But he noted that Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah “the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. civilian and coalition forces in such an incident Iraq.”

Washington blamed that militia for a strike in December that killed a U.S. contractor and triggered a round of violence that led U.S. President Donald Trump to order the killing of a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad the following month.

In retaliation, an Iranian ballistic missile strike on an Iraqi air base left some 110 U.S. troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries.