BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran’s Revolutionary Guard says a U.S. drone strike killed two of its advisers near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, where a major offensive is underway against the Islamic State group, but the U.S. said Monday its coalition conducted no airstrikes in the area during the time of the incident.
U.S. Central Command said it didn’t target the area around Tikrit from March 22 through March 24, the window when the Guard said the two men were killed. The claim came as negotiators from six world powers and Iran attempted to reach a deal on Tehran’s contested nuclear program, which hard-liners in the Islamic Republic fear will end with Tehran giving away too much to the West.
The Guard said on its sepahnews.ir website that the strike happened March 23 as the men supported Iraqi forces trying to retake the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit. It identified the dead advisers as Ali Yazdani and Hadi Jafari, saying they were buried Sunday. It did not say whether Iran contacted Iraqi or U.S. forces after the strike.
Iran occasionally reports on the death of its forces in Iraq and in Syria, where its advisers support embattled President Bashar Assad, but this is the first time Iran has said it lost forces in a U.S. attack in those campaigns.
The U.S.-led coalition began surveillance around Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, on March 21 after the Iraqi offensive had stalled. The coalition said it began airstrikes on Tikrit the night of March 25.
The U.S. Air Forces Central Command recorded “no strikes by coalition aircraft, manned or unmanned, in the vicinity of Tikrit from 22 to 24 March,” spokesman Col. Edward T. Sholtis said in response to an AP query.
Another U.S. official said Monday that the United States had seen no information to back up Iran’s claims, but that officials were looking into it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The United States and Iran have found themselves on the same side of the conflict against the Islamic State group since it rampaged across northern and western Iraq last summer, capturing Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
A U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes against the extremist group in August, while Iran has advised and supported Shiite militias that have played a key role in ground operations alongside Iraq’s military. However, Washington and Tehran, which remain deeply divided on a host of regional issues, insist they are not coordinating with one another on the battlefield.
Iraq has been carrying out its own strikes since the campaign began, and rights groups have accused it of missing targets. The New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a report released last July, said the Iraqi government had carried out “indiscriminate airstrikes” on four Sunni-majority towns and cities, including Fallujah and Mosul, which killed at least 75 civilians.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed power in September, ordered such strikes to be halted. On Friday, local media outlets reported casualties among Iraqi security forces near the University of Tikrit, allegedly from U.S. airstrikes. But the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad denied those claims, saying “no coalition airstrikes took place during the time or in the vicinity of these alleged casualties.”
The ground offensive to retake Tikrit has been waged by Iraqi troops and Shiite militias advised by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force. Several Shiite militias announced Thursday that they would boycott the Tikrit operations due to U.S. involvement.
But Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate hearing Thursday that the U.S. agreed to Iraqi government requests to support the operation on the condition that the militias wouldn’t be involved.
Mouin al-Kadhimy, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Units, the government-backed body overseeing the various militias, said it was not aware of reports that Iranians were killed near Tikrit. The militias have been accused by rights groups of carrying out revenge attacks against Sunni civilians seen as supporting the IS group. Visiting Baghdad on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his concern over “summary killings, abductions and destruction of property perpetrated by forces and militias fighting alongside Iraqi armed forces.”
Iraqi military commanders said Monday they retook a hospital in southern Tikrit. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists, said the military’s three-pronged offensive is progressing toward the center of Tikrit slowly because of booby traps and suicide bomb attacks.