No nation has yet claimed the July air raids against two bases of a Shiite militia backed by Iran.
By Jonathan Spyer
Source: Wall Street Journal
Two airstrikes on Shiite militia targets took place in Iraq last month. No country or organization has taken responsibility, but there are strong reasons to think they were carried out by Israel. If so, these would be the Jewish state’s first air raids on Iraq since the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
The first of the raids, on July 19, targeted a militia base near the town of Amerli in Salah al-Din province, north of Baghdad. The second, three days later, struck Camp Ashraf, a former U.S. military base in Iraq’s Diyala Province. Both the Ashraf and Amerli bases are now controlled by the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia cum political party, in apparent cooperation with Iran.
According to Arabic media reports, the second raid was of considerably larger dimensions than the first. Al-Ain, the Emirati news website that broke the news of the Camp Ashraf action, reported about 40 dead Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel and Iraqi Shiite militiamen.
The Saudi Sharq al Awsat newspaper last week attributed the attacks to Israel. Officials in Jerusalem have remained silent, but their country is the only serious candidate. The only other main enemies of the Shiite militias in Iraq are Islamic State and the U.S. and its coalition. The former lacks the capacity to mount air raids. The latter are engaged in high-stakes diplomacy intended to force an Iranian climbdown on the nuclear issue while avoiding a further deterioration in the relationship; open conflict is the last thing the U.S. and its allies want right now. That leaves Israel.
This is almost certainly not Israel’s first strike on Iraqi Shiite militias, which have been vital both to the advance of Iranian power in Iraq and to Tehran’s defense of the Assad regime in Syria. According to U.S. security sources quoted by the Journal, in June 2018 Israel bombed a facility that housed members of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards near Abu Kamal, a town in southwest Syria, near the Iraqi border. The raid was intended to prevent the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Yet hitting the Iranians in lawless Syria is one thing, in line with the general contours of Israeli activity and defense strategy in recent years. An Israeli attack in Iraq is another, constituting a significant expansion of the military theater.
The Israeli security establishment has been acutely worried in recent months by growing evidence that Iran is using the Shiite militia infrastructure in Iraq as a pipeline for weapons transfers to Hezbollah, which menaces Israel from the north in Lebanon, and as a holding point for ballistic missiles that can hit Israel all the way from Western Iraq.
Armed to the teeth, the various militias could be used as a tool to pressure Israel, but also be presented to the world as independent actors, lending Iran plausible deniability. Israel is familiar with this strategy—employed by Iran with Hezbollah in Lebanon—and it’s determined to prevent a repeat in Iraq.
Some details of Israeli concerns have already been made public. In August 2018 Reuters reported the transfer of Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar Iranian missiles and launchers from Iran’s Quds Force to Shiite proxies in western Iraq. The Zolfaqar has a claimed range of 750 kilometers. The distance from Al-Qa’im, on the Iraqi-Syrian border, to Tel Aviv is only 632 kilometers.
An article published in May by Israel Reserve Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion and Iraq analyst Michael Knights contended that several Iraqi bases are wholly controlled by militias for the purpose of storing, deploying and transporting weapons. These included Camp Ashraf, the second site Israel bombed.
Publicly, Israeli spokesmen attribute Iran’s increasing employment of Iraqi Shiite militias for these tasks as evidence of the success of Israel’s (acknowledged) air war on Iran’s infrastructure in Syria. According to this logic, the proven vulnerability of Tehran’s facilities in Syria has led the Revolutionary Guards to place hardware further afield. But the force and accuracy of the Israeli raids in Syria notwithstanding, Iran’s possession of a mobilized, Tehran-dependent military infrastructure in Iraq is equal evidence of an Iranian success.
The largest and most powerful of Iran’s proxy political-military organizations in Iraq is the Badr Organization. Thought to have around 50,000 fighters, it held the Interior and Transport ministries in the last Iraqi government. It’s an integral part of the Iraqi political and military establishments.
In the coming weeks the militias are set to be incorporated officially into the Iraqi armed forces, in line with a recent decree by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. But these fighters are unlikely to abandon their Iranian patrons’ regional strategy and settle for a future as Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s soldiers. Rather, the Iraqi state looks set to offer them a handy cover for their activities as Tehran’s proxies. The implications of continued Israeli action against the militias will become graver as the groups gain official status. The temperature in the already overheated cauldron of the Middle East has risen by several degrees.
Mr. Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at the Middle East Forum. He is author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.”