Has Israel's Air War On Iranian-Backed Militias Secretly Migrated To Iraq? (Updated)

Rumors and speculation are swirling that Israel, the United States, ISIS terrorists, or even simple accidents may be the cause.

Loay Hameed/AP

For the second time in four days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that his country will strike at Iran's interests, anywhere, if necessary. This is likely to only fuel speculation that Israel is behind at least four mysterious explosions in Iraq at bases belonging to militia groups known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, many of which are Iranian-supported, since July 2019. The PMF's 12th Brigade has also now released footage of its members trying to shoot down an unknown small unmanned aircraft that its members say was snooping on them at a base in Baghdad, which would at least seem to suggest that someone is flying drones over militia bases.

The first unexplained explosion occurred on July 19, 2019, at a PMF base 100 miles northeast of Baghdad, reportedly killing two Iranian personnel. On Aug. 11, 2019, another explosion blew up facilities at Camp Ashraf, some 50 miles northeast of the Iraqi capital, killing one person and injuring at least a dozen more. The next day, another blast occurred at Camp Saqr, also known as Camp Falcon, to the south of Baghdad, killing one civilian and injuring nearly 30 after the initial explosion sent munitions and other debris flying into nearby residential areas. Most recently, on Aug. 20, 2019, yet another possible attack resulted in an explosion at a PMF base adjacent to Balad Air Base, which is also home to the Iraqi Air Force's F-16IQ Viper fighter jets, located north of Baghdad, causing only some injuries.

Google Maps

A map showing the relative locations of the four incidents. Top to bottom: Amerli, Camp Ashraf, Balad Air Base, and Camp Saqr.

 

So far, there is still no hard evidence of any group's involvement in these incidents, which militia leaders have, at times, also blamed on the United States and ISIS. Representatives of the PMF have claimed that drones have been involved on multiple occasions, which has now led Iraqi authorities to ban foreign military aircraft from conducting sorties anywhere in the country without prior approval. The PMF has said it will treat any foreign aircraft flying over its bases without prior notice as hostile, which is almost certainly why 12th Brigade's members engaged the unidentified drone on Aug. 22, as seen in the video below.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Iran was looking to establish more physical presences in a number of countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq in an interview late on Aug. 21, 2019, with Israel's Russian-language Channel 9 television network. The interviewer, Dmitry Dubov, interjected that this could mean Israeli forces were operating in Iraq. 

Netanyahu then responded generally to say that the country takes armed action against Iran and Iranian-linked groups, as necessary. Israel's public broadcaster Kan, as well as i24NEWS, subsequently reported that Netanyahu had confirmed Israel had taken action in Iraq against Iranian-backed militias, though this was not what he actually said. Both of those outlets have since taken their stories offline.

The Israeli Prime Minister's comments to Channel 9 were very similar to those he reportedly gave during a visit to Ukraine on Aug. 19, 2019. "Iran has no immunity, anywhere," Netanyahu said in response to the incidents in Iraq. “We will act – and currently are acting – against them, wherever it is necessary."

However, he never directly confirmed involvement in Iraq and Israel has taken direct action against Iranian interests elsewhere, particularly in Lebanon and Syria. Curiously, these particular comments also did not appear in an official transcript of Netanyahu's remarks to the press in Ukraine.

"What Netanyahu said is only speech, confirming nothing," Iraqi Security Media Cell spokesperson Yehia Rasool had told Iraqi Kurdish outlet Rudaw on Aug. 20, 2019. "Iraq will take an Israeli statement seriously only if it is released through the Israeli Defense Ministry." 

That being said, Israel may be disinclined to offer any sort of confirmation any time soon. Israel remained silent about strikes in Syria for some time though it has since begun admitting to striking at Iranian-linked targets there.

Regardless, rumors and speculation about exactly what has caused the four explosions have been swirling since July 19. There have been numerous unsubstantiated claims that Israeli F-35I Adir stealth combat jets or drones have been involved. However, the F-35I lacks a standoff munitions capability and would not otherwise have the range necessary to conduct strikes on Iraq without refueling over a foreign country in between. That could be a complicated proposition. Israel does have other longer-range non-stealthy options, though.

One report claimed, without evidence, that the United States had helped bring Israeli unmanned aircraft into Azerbaijan for strikes on Iraq. Azerbaijan is an Israeli regional partner and has bought unmanned aircraft and loitering munitions from Israel, but does not share a border with Iraq. 

London-based Saudi Arabian-owned newspaper Asharq Al Awsat reported that an unnamed "Western diplomatic source" had said that the United States and Russia had secretly given their approval to Israeli strikes in Iraq, similar to an arrangement the three parties reportedly have with regards to Syria. Two unnamed "senior American officials" also told The New York Times that Israel was responsible for at least some of the strikes.

Other sources have accused U.S. drones of directly carrying out strikes on PMF bases over their ties to Iran given Washington's own rising tensions with Tehran. The U.S. military has categorically denied any involvement, though this wouldn't necessarily exclude the possibility that other U.S. government actors might have been involved.

Separately, PMF commanders themselves have suggested that at least the Amerli attack might have been the work of ISIS terrorists, who have used small unmanned aircraft to drop munitions on Iraqi forces on countless occasions in the past. The terrorist group has exploited a number of geopolitical disputes in the region to try to regroup and recoup some of its lost strength after years of fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria. 

There is also the possibility that the incidents may be unrelated to each other and that some of them may simply be accidents. Poor safety standards for the storage and handling of ammunition and other hazardous materials are hardly unheard of, even among larger militaries. In May 2018, the Syrian government notably walked back a claim that one of its ammunition depots had come under Israeli attack and said that the massive explosion was actually the result of an accident. This did not appear to be an attempt to conceal Israeli involvement, given that Syria's regime blamed attacks before and after that on Israel and that there was clear evidence that Israeli forces were conducting a protracted campaign of airstrikes against Iranian-liked sites in the country. That campaign continues to this day.

What has become clear in recent days is that Iraqi authorities, as well as the representatives of the PMF brigades, may not be speaking with one voice on these incidents. Also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the predominantly Shiite PMF came into being after ISIS blitz into the country in 2014. Two years later, it officially became a component of the country's armed forces, but individual groups continue to exercise significant autonomy.

On Aug. 21, 2019, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the Deputy Chairman of Popular Mobilization Committee, which runs the PMF, described the incidents as attacks and blamed an unnamed "foreign side" for carrying them out. Al Muhandis is an Iraqi-Iranian who fled to Iran during Saddam Hussein's regime and has close ties to the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Fars News Agency

Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, at right, speaks with Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran's Quds Force, the division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tasked with conducting operations outside of Iran, including supporting proxy forces and carrying out clandestine attacks. This photo is from Soleimani's Father's funeral in 2017.

He returned to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Hussein, only to flee back to Iran in 2007, for fear of arrest at the best of the United States. He returned again after the U.S. withdrawal to lead Kata'ib Hezbollah, one of the most prominent Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups in the country and a group that U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization, which subsequently became a core component of the PMF.

On Aug. 22, 2019, however, Faleh Al Fayyadh, the Chairman of Popular Mobilization Committee, said Al Muhandis did not represent the view of either the PMF or the Iraqi government. Al Fayyadh also said that the Iraqi Security Forces had authorized Al Muhandis to make the statement, at all.

Ameer Al Mohammedaw/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Faleh Al Fayyadh, at right, with Al Muhandis at a PMF event to honor Iranian fighters who died fighting ISIS in Iraq in April 2019.

It is, of course, plausible that Israel could actually be behind the incidents. As already noted, the Israel Defense Forces have already been very active in striking Iranian-linked groups in Lebanon and Syria. Israel also has a long history of conducting unilateral strikes in other foreign countries when it believes they are absolutely necessary. The Israeli government has made clear on numerous occasions that it sees Iran's expanding influence in the Middle East as an existential threat. Tehran's ability to establish a "land bridge" from Iran straight to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria, which could support various national allies and non-state proxy groups, is also a known Israeli security concern. 

At the same time, falsely blaming Israel, as well as the United States, is extremely convenient for both the PMF and Iran, who have competing interests in Iraq and beyond. It also downplays just how serious the continued threat of ISIS really is in both Iraq and Syria. 

The PMF and its supporters in Iraq's government have already been able to leverage the situation to essentially close the country's airspace to foreign military aircraft. This has had an immediate impact on U.S. military activity in the country, something that may also benefit Iran by reducing the ability of the United States to use Iraq as a buffer against Iranian interests. This, in turn, could only further fuel tensions between the United States and Iran, which have been steadily growing all year on a number of fronts, including accusations from Washington that Tehran has been trying to leverage the PMF to launch attacks on American military personnel and interests in Iraq.

USN

The US Navy's Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, along with other ships, sails through the highly sensitive Strait of Hormuz on Aug. 12, 2019. Marines on board Boxer knocked down an Iranian drone that came within a "threatening range" in the Strait of Hormuz with an electronic warfare system on July 18, 2019. An all-terrain vehicle carrying a component of that system is visible on the forward deck next to the white-and-red fire truck. LAV-25 light armored vehicles are visible parked on the deck of the ship facing to port and starboard to provide additional force protection against close-in threats, such as small boat swarms.

Opposition to the continued presence of American forces has already been building since Iraq's parliamentary elections in 2018, where a political alliance with long-time anti-American firebrand Muqtada Al Sadr at its head made significant gains. In March 2019, members of that grouping publicly announced their desire to evict U.S. military personnel after President Donald Trump visited the country for the first time, but snubbed Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. One of The New York Times' sources warned that the incidents could reignite calls for a full U.S. military withdrawal from the country, which also raises questions about how much the U.S. government actually knows about what is going on.

Whatever the truth is about these mysterious explosions, the competing claims and apparent divisions within the Iraqi government, as well as the PMF, over these incidents is worrying in its own right. The PMF is a particularly complex issue by itself, with some believing that Al Muhandis is the real power behind the umbrella organization and a direct link between it to Iran. Even before the emergence of the PMF, the Iraqi government had struggled to exert effective control over various Shiite militia groups in the country, which often inflamed sectarian tensions with Sunni Arabs and Kurdish groups. 

No matter what the reality is, without a definitive official account of what has happened and who is responsible, the incidents could evolve into a far more serious matter with wider-reaching geopolitical implications as all the parties involved throw increasingly serious accusations at each other. At this point, it seems clear that the actual culprit is the only actor with an interest in concealing the origin and reason for these attacks, leaving everyone else with a lot to lose.

UPDATE 8/23/2019:

On Aug. 23, 2019, the Associated Press, citing two unnamed American officials, reported that Israel was responsible for the July 19 incident in Amerli, which killed two Iranian personnel. However, those sources did not say whether or not Israel had been behind the other three incidents.

There will be a "strong response" from Iraq if it turns out that Israel is carrying out strikes in the country, former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who is now one of Iraq's three largely ceremonial Vice Presidents, said in a statement on Aug. 23, 2019. Continued strikes "will transform [Iraq] into a battle arena that drags in multiple countries, including Iran," the politician who is known for his strong Pro-Iran stance continued.

"Israel's intervention into the sphere of our national interests is a declaration of war against Iraq, its people, sovereignty," Ahmed Al Asadi, an Iraqi Member of Parliament and former PMF spokesperson had also said on Aug. 22, 2019. "The silence on the aggression is not a rational position ... We must take measures at the regional and international levels to resist the destruction of our airspace and military capabilities."

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com