Four airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia bases in Iraq in the last month represent a new front that appears to be developing against these groups, however they remain shrouded in mystery. On Tuesday, an explosion destroyed munition storage near Balad Air base in Iraq.
Israel's Channel 12 reported on the explosion. It is now clear that it could be a new front line, the report noted. The mysterious airstrikes have targeted storage of rockets and is aimed at groups backed by Iran. The first strikes hit Camp Ashraf and Amerli and the third struck Camp Falcon near Baghdad. The first two areas were not far from the Iranian border. These are sensitive areas and are associated with areas that militias seek to store their weapons, many of them stockpiled during the war on ISIS. However, it is not clear how the strikes were carried out; some media and locals have reported drones and others suggested it could be the F-35.
There has been complete silence in Israel regarding the air strikes, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly asked about them in Ukraine. Israel has warned in the past about Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Netanyahu said in July that the F-35 can reach Iran. Sumer News in Iraq has reported in Arabic that Netanyahu hinted Israel was behind the strikes. Al-Ain news reported that the base was linked to Ktaib Hezbollah, one of the militias in Iraq closely linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Shi'ite militias in Iraq were formed in the years after 2003, with some having roots dating back to the 1980s when Shi'ite Iraqis when to Iran to fight alongside Iran against Saddam Hussein's regime. In 2014, the militias became part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a group formed to fight Islamic State. They carried religious flags and had their own bases and weapons. In 2018, they were formally made part of the security forces. However, they have continued to operate partly independently. They have set down roots and been accused of stockpiling long-range missiles and other major military hardware. Some have been fighting in Syria supporting the Assad regime. In the summer of 2018, a Ktaib Hezbollah base was struck in Syria near the Iraqi border. Initially the militia blamed the US but then shifted blame to Israel.
In the recent alleged airstrikes the militias have been silent on blaming Israel, however, the US-led Coalition has said in the past they were not responsible. This comes in the context of US-Iran tensions in Iraq. In May and June there were several incidents of militias accused of firing rockets and mortars near US bases and near the US embassy. Now Qais Khazali, head of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, has called for an investigation into the attacks. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has called for the munitions not to be located on bases near urban areas and civilians. Some have speculated that the munitions might be exploding due to the high temperatures. But, with four explosions so far and so many locals reporting airstrikes and drones, the overall picture being painted is that this is more serious. However, Iraq's government is reticent to get too involved for fear it will undermine the Prime Minister's already weakened government. The Iraqi government has been trying to rein in the PMU in recent months and bring them under federal control. If a shadow war involving air strikes is developing – amid US-Iran tensions in Iraq – then Baghdad looks like it is even less in control.
Iraqi defense ministry officials arrived at night to investigate the incident. The fire from the explosions could be seen burning into the evening. Locals said that the incident affected the Imam Ali 40th brigade of the PMU as well as other elements of the PMU.
Meanwhile the Iraq Security Media Cell spokesperson Yehia Rasool told Kurdish media Rudaw that they did not take Netanyahu's comments seriously. "What Netanyahu said is only speech, confirming nothing," Rasool said. "Iraq will take an Israeli statement seriously only if it is released through the Israeli defense ministry."
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.