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Air strike in east Syria kills 26 Iraqi paramilitary fighters, says activist group

Strike follows rocket attack on a US-led coalition base near Baghdad which killed a British soldier and two Americans
Factions of Hashd al-Shaabi have repeatedly pledged to avenge Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' death (File pic - AFP)

An air strike in eastern Syria killed 26 Iraqi militia fighters on Thursday, an activist group has said, hours after a deadly rocket attack on a US-led coalition base in Iraq.

The air strike killed members of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi in Al-Bukamal near the border with Iraq, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

The Observatory said the strike was probably carried out by the coalition.

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Late on Wednesday, a volley of 18 rockets slammed into the Taji air base, north of Baghdad, killing a British soldier, a US soldier and an American contractor in the deadliest attack in years on US forces in Iraq.

Top Iraqi politicians joined the United Nations on Thursday in condemning the attack on the base that threatens a new escalation.

US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the US military's Central Command, did not blame any specific militia for the attack but noted that only Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah had been known to wage such an attack in the past.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the factions that make up Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

"While we are still investigating the attack, I will note that the Iranian proxy group Kataib Hezbollah is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against US and coalition forces in Iraq," McKenzie told a US Senate hearing.

The coalition in Iraq said 18 107 mm Katyusha rockets struck the Taji military camp.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that a total of 30 of the rockets were fired from a nearby truck but only 18 of them landed at the Iraqi base.

On Wednesday, the coalition said about a dozen personnel were also injured.

'Vendettas and external battles'

On Thursday morning, Iraq's military command said the attack against coalition forces was "a serious security challenge" and pledged to open an investigation. 

President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi condemned what they called a "terrorist attack" which targeted "Iraq and its security". 

The UN mission in Iraq called for "maximum restraint on all sides".

"These ongoing attacks are a clear and substantial threat to the country, and the risk of rogue action by armed groups remains a constant concern," it said in a statement.

"The last thing Iraq needs is to serve as an arena for vendettas and external battles." 

Soleimani's killing

Wednesday's attack was the 22nd since October on US interests in Iraq, AFP reported.

US diplomatic offices have come under attack as well as the bases where the 5,200 American troops stationed in Iraq are based.

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The previous attacks included the killing of an Iraqi soldier and a US contractor in late December, leading to a major uptick in tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Washington responded to the contractor's death with air strikes that killed more than two dozen Iran-backed Iraqi fighters. 

Days later, a US drone killed senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Hashd al-Shaabi militias deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad's airport prompting retaliatory Iranian air strikes against coalition troops in Iraq. 

Factions of Hashd al-Shaabi have repeatedly pledged to avenge Muhandis's death.