Last month, almost two years after the United States announced the end of combat missions in Iraq, the White House extended an emergency decree regarding the country due to what it called ongoing obstacles to its orderly reconstruction, peace and security.
The Biden administration said in its decree that “the development of political, administrative, and economic institutions in Iraq continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
There are growing signs, however, that Iraq is also gradually posing an unusual—and more geographically immediate—threat to Israel.
The Iranian-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, which recently threatened the 2,500 U.S. forces stationed in the country, are a member of the Iranian-backed radical axis, and cooperate with Hezbollah, as well as with Shi’ite militias in Syria.
One PMF group, Golan Liberation Brigade, as its name suggests, was set up to fight Israel. Some of the Iraqi militias are also active in Syria, such as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which is activated by the Iranian Quds Force.
In 2019, international media reports said Israeli aircraft or drones struck PMF bases in Iraq—a report that, if true, would suggest that Iran has transferred weapons to Iraq for future use against Israel.
Danny (Dennis) Citrinowicz, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, assessed that the significant threat to Israel stemming from Iraq involves armed unmanned aerial vehicles.
“In the past, there was a claim of an attempted UAV launch from Iraq at Israel during ‘Operation Protective Edge’ [in 2014, against Hamas in Gaza],” said Citrinowicz, who served for 25 years in a variety of command positions in the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate.
He added that Shi’ite militias in Iraq have themselves said that they are building up UAV capabilities, noting that they attack American targets in Syria using UAVs on a regular basis.
Professor Eyal Zisser, vice rector of Tel Aviv University and chair in Contemporary History of the Middle East, told JNS that Iraq is “slowly turning into a source of threat.”
He argued that since Hezbollah wants to maintain a quiet border with Israel, while in Syria the Assad regime, concerned about Israeli reprisals, does not wish to give Iran a free hand, Iraq becomes “a comfortable arena—from which one can fire missiles at Israel without entanglement, and without the finger of blame falling directly on Iran.”
According to Zisser, the missile threat from Iraq is small, and can’t be compared to that posed by Hezbollah’s enormous arsenal. However, he said, any projectile fire out of Iraq “would create a lot of noise— including media [coverage] in Israel.”
Citrinowicz noted that Iraqi militia leaders have stated—including during the recent May escalation between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that “they would not hesitate to attack Israel,” adding that it is clear that they are part of the Iran-backed axis, and part of the trend of unifying multiple arenas.
In light of their growing proximity to Hezbollah in recent years—particularly after the death of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in a January 2020 U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, Citrinowicz said it would be correct to assume that the threat from Iraq is taking shape, in practice, through the actions and declarations of the militia heads.
Zisser noted that in Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force is the organizer and funder of the Shi’ite militias, giving the elite extraterritorial Iranian force a significant role there.
At the same time, he added, Iraq has not yet fully fallen “into Iran’s pocket, and there are various streams, including within the Shi’ite sect, some of which are hostile to Iran.”
PMF militias are upset over what they see as Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani’s cooperation with the United States, he said.
“Hence, the Iranian effort is first of all focused on the domestic Iraqi scene,” he explained. “The moment that Iraq is in their pocket—and it’s not certain that this will happen—then it would be easier for the Iranians to focus their efforts on Syria. But that isn’t the current situation.”
Citrinowicz said the Iraqi arena has a deep influence on eastern Syria, where Shi’ite militias have become the main military force active on the Syrian–Iraqi border.
The United States is facing a trap in Iraq, he said, since it “has to preserve its influence and work with Prime Minister Sudani – who is viewed negatively by the militias – and at the same time, the United States has to respond to every action by the militias, mainly in Syria. This is a very delicate balance, and it is expected to become even more delicate in future.”
U.S. influence in Iraq places checks on the Iranians, and also forces them to focus on the U.S. presence there, he said, adding, however, that it is unclear what will happen after U.S. forces leave.
“Iraq is in a transitional phase, and it is worth monitoring developments there, because it can go back to being a threatening arena to Israel,” he cautioned.