Iraq is back in the headlines. Two weeks after the Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen made waves by saying that “there are objective reasons that may call for the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel,” some in the Arab world now point to Israel as being behind last week’s attack on Iraq’s Al-Shuhada military base.
On Friday, the Iraqi army announced that a military base near the town of Amerli in eastern Salahuddin, north of Baghdad, had been bombed by a drone. According to Al Arabiya, at least one person was killed and two wounded in the attack.
The base used by pro-Iranian militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force), which includes a Shi’ite Turkmen Brigade. The unit recently received Iranian ballistic missiles, hidden inside food-delivery trucks.
According to Arab media reports, Hezbollah fighters and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were among the casualties.
Although Arab commentators took the view that it was an American or Israeli drone attack, the Pentagon denied U.S. involvement and Jerusalem kept mum.
Nevertheless, Iraqi airspace is in the U.S. CENTCOM area of control. While initial reports said the strike was carried out by a drone, a Popular Mobilization Force official, Ali al-Husseini, told London-based Arabic daily “Asharq al-Awsat,” “We must await the results of the probe to find out what type of aircraft carried out the strike. The strength of the rocket indicates that it was probably not fired by a drone.”
According to Western and Israeli intelligence organizations, in recent months Iran has provided the Iraqi Shi’ite militias with dozens of guided ballistic missiles. Tehran’s aim is reportedly to build an alternative “missile base” in Iraq following Israel’s repeated successful strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. In charge of the missile relocation project is Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force.
The missiles are reported to be of the Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar types. On August 31, 2018, Reuters reported that the Zolfaqar missiles have a range of up to 700 kilometers, enabling them to reach Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, or Tel Aviv if launched from Iraq. The Fateh-110 missiles have 250-300 km range.
This is not the first time a strike on Iraqi militias loyal to Iran has been attributed to Israel. In June 2018, drones struck an Iraqi militia near the town of Khari southeast of Al-Bukhmal on the Syria-Iraq border, killing 20 to 40 militiamen. The official Syrian news agency blamed the American coalition for the attack, but a senior U.S. official ascribed it to Israel.
The Iraqi base hit last week is relatively close to the border, and Iran may have been planning to move the missiles into Syria.
The Iraqi government has trouble standing up to Iran, which means its territory is prone to U.S. and Israeli attacks. Experience proves that Israel has excellent intelligence information on IRGC activity in Syria and Iraq that it can quickly translate into offensive operational activity.
If Israel is indeed behind last week’s attack in Iraq, it is good that it is staying silent. Israel cannot afford to stop hitting Iranian targets intended to open new fronts against it, whether in the Syrian Golan Heights or in Iraq, however, the current period is very sensitive in light of U.S.-Iran tensions. One can only hope that the upcoming Israeli elections will not inspire boastfulness in senior officials.
While there is no proof that this was an Israeli attack, its message was quite clear: There are actors in the region with very effective military capabilities, that will not accept the stationing of Iranian ballistic missiles in Iraq that endanger Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has a major problem: It has been penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies and has a hard time concealing the IRGC’s activities in Syria and Iraq. Israel enjoys intelligence and aerial superiority over Iran in Syrian airspace and in the vicinity of Syria’s border with Iraq. Iran, however, is persisting in its efforts to open new fronts against Israel.
Even amid Iran’s economic and diplomatic plight, its leadership retains its burning ideological hatred towards Israel; for them, the desire to destroy it outweighs any other consideration. For the time being, this is not going to change, and for Israel, the northern and northeastern fronts will remain an ongoing concern.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article first appeared on the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs website.