JERUSALEM — A series of strikes targeting munition stockpiles and bases of Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitaries near Baghdad is raising fears that Iraq is emerging as the next battleground in the unacknowledged hot war between Israel and Iran.
In a shadowy rivalry playing out across the Middle East, Israel has targeted Iranian assets and Iranian "proxies" far beyond Iran's borders, including multiple strikes on Iranian units and bases in Lebanon, Sudan and Syria. As is customary, Israeli officials won't confirm or deny a role in the latest strikes in Iraq, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned this week that Tehran has "no immunity, anywhere," when asked point-blank about the Iraqi strikes.
"We will act — and are currently acting — against [Iran] wherever it is necessary," Mr. Netanyahu told Israeli reporters on a visit to Ukraine.
The Shiite militias in Iraq played a key role in rolling back the Islamic State's "caliphate," but both Washington and the Israeli government have expressed fear that they maintain deep logistical and religious ties to the Iranian regime.
Gen. Kenneth Franklin McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, said the deployment of thousands more U.S. troops to the Middle East this spring was meant to "send a signal to Tehran that it would be held responsible if either its regular military, the Guard Corps or even Iranian proxies operating in Iraq or elsewhere attempted to do harm to U.S. forces."
The suspected Israeli strike this week would mark a significant escalation in the campaign against the pro-Iranian militias, analysts said.
Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group for the government-sanctioned Shiite militias in Iraq, issued a rare public statement Wednesday saying they were holding Israel and the Trump administration directly responsible for the attacks. An Aug. 12 airstrike targeted an Iraqi base that housed a major weapons depot for the PMF.
Claiming the Pentagon supplied the drones that the Iraqi government said were used in the strikes, the PMF statement warned that it would hold Washington "ultimately responsible for what will happen as of today," The Associated Press reported. "We have no choice but to defend ourselves and our bases with the weapons at our disposal."
Earlier this week, rows of sea containers linked to a base of the paramilitary militias blew up in an inferno that took all night to extinguish. It happened not far from Iraq's Balad Air Base, where the U.S. and its allies in the coalition against the Islamic State are housed. The base where the blast took place is linked to the Imam Ali Brigades of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of mostly Shiite militias raised in 2014 to help fight the Islamic State.
Iraq's defense minister and army chief of staff arrived in the evening to inspect the damage and support civil defense and fire brigades, according to local reports. Al Ain media reported that unknown aircraft had struck the facility. U.S. commanders in the region referred questions to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, which is investigating the incident.
Trail of evidence
Israeli radio and Channel 12 reported the airstrikes on Tuesday evening, but Israeli officials have not commented.
By combining Mr. Netanyahu's comments and satellite images published by ImageSat International on Aug. 14 tracking the Aug. 12 attack south of Baghdad at Camp Falcon, a picture is emerging of an air campaign against Iranian-backed targets in Iraq.
ImageSat International has frequently published satellite photos of areas in Syria of alleged Israeli airstrikes. In addition, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat website has been regularly reporting on the suspected strikes since late July. A report Wednesday on the Arabic website said Israel was striking Iran in Iraq with U.S. approval.
The first airstrike against Iran-allied assets in Iraq was reported July 19 near Amerli, about 40 miles from the border with Iran.
Iraqi officials have expressed increasing alarm that they will be caught in the middle of a clash between the U.S. and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. They say it will pose a massive setback for a country struggling to overcome a long period of isolation, conflict and disruption.
"[Iraq] is a success that is emerging after four decades of conflict," Iraqi President Barham Salih said at a government summit in May called to emphasize the country's determination not to be drawn into the fight. "We don't have the stamina, we don't have the energy, we don't have the resources or the willingness to become victim to yet another proxy conflict."
But Iraq likely will be unable to ignore the string of airstrikes in recent weeks.
Baghdad has sought to increase control of Iraq's airspace, including for U.S. and U.S.-allied aircraft participating in the coalition against the Islamic State. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi last week ordered a ban on all military flights throughout the country unless specifically authorized by the Defense Ministry. U.S. military officials said they would honor the restriction.
Iraq's Security Media Cell spokesman Yehia Rasool told Kurdish media Rudaw on Tuesday that Mr. Netanyahu's statement about being able to strike Iran did not confirm Israel's role.
"Iraq will take an Israeli statement seriously only if it is released through the Israeli Defense Ministry," he said.
The Iranian-backed militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, have accused Israel and the U.S. of being behind the incidents. The militias themselves have been accused of carrying out — at Iran's behest — mortar attacks near Balad Air Base and a rocket attack in May on the Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government are housed.
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.