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‘We hold the US responsible,’ says brother of Iraqi student killed in airstrikes

<i>Stringer/Reuters</i><br/>Shell casings lie at the site of a US airstrike in Al Qaim
Shell casings lie at the site of a US airstrike in Al Qaim

By Mohammed Tawfeeq, CNN

(CNN) — The brother of an Iraqi student killed as a result of US airstrikes on Iraq and Syria on Friday says the family holds the United States responsible for his death.

Abdulrahman Khaled, 20, was killed in the town of Al Qaim, on the Iraq-Syria border, in what the family believes was a secondary explosion after the strikes hit three houses being used by an Iranian-backed Shia militia to store weapons.

His eldest brother, Anmar Khaled, told CNN the family had “heard and felt” the airstrikes shortly after midnight local time and that “a massive fire broke out.” Over the next four hours, he says, rockets from the weapons storage started firing off “constantly, left and right” and hit several houses in their residential compound known as the Sikek.

“When we all started hearing more explosions, Abdulrahman decided to go out and check on our dad, who was alone in his house,” Anmar said.

Neighbors saw one of the stray rockets hit a car next to Abdulrahman, he added. Afterward, they found his body in pieces.

“My brother was killed instantly,” Anmar told CNN on the phone from Al Qaim on Tuesday. “My mom does not know how we saw his body, and we cannot tell her the details. She is devastated and keeps thinking he will come back.”

He described his brother as “the spoiled member of the family,” sobbing as he added, “We took care of him and did not let him need anything.”

“He was very popular and always loved to help and serve others. I miss him so much, and I can’t believe he has already left this world,” Anmar said.

According to the Iraqi government, Abdulrahman is one of at least 16 people killed as a result of the strikes, which the US conducted on 85 targets across seven locations in the two countries last week. Of those 16, Abdulrahman was the only civilian, according to local authorities in Anbar province, including two security officials and two local mayors. A further 25 were injured, including a mother and daughter in Al Qaim.

The retaliatory strikes, which lasted around 30 minutes and which the White House deemed successful, were in response to a drone strike by Iranian-backed militants on a US military outpost in Jordan on January 29, which killed three US service members and wounded more than 40 others.

‘Why did they not warn the residents?’

Anmar, a medical assistant at Al Qaim General Hospital and father of two, lives about 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the site of the strikes. His parents live in another house a similar distance away, as did his brother.

He told CNN he wanted to know why there was no warning from the US that might have saved civilians like his brother – who was studying at the Al Qaim Preparatory High School after the war on ISIS closed schools in the area for years and delayed his education.

“If the American administration knew there were weapon warehouses there, why did they not warn the residents in the area? At least drop leaflets before the attack so we have enough time to leave our houses or at least to inform local security,” Anmar said.

“We hold the United States responsible for the killing of my brother,” he added.

The high school where Abdulrahman was studying expressed its “deepest condolences and sympathy” to the family in a post on the school’s Facebook page on Sunday.

A Department of Defense spokesperson said it was still assessing reports of civilian casualties and declined to comment further.

What we know about the site in Al Qaim

Several years ago, the Iranian-backed Shia militia known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or Hashad Shaabi, took over a number of houses at the edge of the Sikek compound and bordered these off with aluminum sheets, according to two local security officials and several local residents.

PMU fighters are thought to have at least 50 houses in that section, with a few of these used as warehouses and offices, according to the officials and residents.

There are about 440 residential houses in the Sikek compound.

The area is mostly Sunni Muslim and some local residents say they have opposed the presence of the Shia militia for years.

In 2016, the Iraqi parliament passed a bill recognizing the PMU as a government entity, or paramilitary force, operating alongside the Iraqi military. That decision came because Iranian-backed militias helped the Iraqi military fight ISIS in the country between 2014 and 2017.

The US administration has always viewed the PMU as militia backed by Iran. It considers the group as among those responsible for carrying out attacks on US sites in Iraq and Syria.

‘Against Iraq’s sovereignty’

The Iraqi government has described the US airstrikes on its territory as “aggression against Iraq’s sovereignty.”

It has also criticized the US, accusing it of deception, after National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby mistakenly claimed over the weekend that the US had informed the Iraqi government of its plans before carrying out the strikes.

The Iraqi government denied that, calling it “an unfounded claim crafted to mislead international public opinion and evade legal responsibility for this condemned act, in violation of international laws.”

On Tuesday, the White House admitted it had made an error in stating that Iraqi officials were notified in advance of Friday’s strikes.

“I deeply apologize for the error and I regret any confusion that it caused,” Kirby told reporters.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden has warned that the US military’s response to the deadly January drone attack would “continue at times and places of our choosing.”

The Iraqi government warned such attacks would “push the security situation in Iraq and the region to the brink of the abyss.”

CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Betsy Klein contributed to this report 

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