Israel is using Iraq as a staging ground for its proxy battles with Iran - and Iraq can do nothing to stop it.

A string of airstrikes over the past month targeting facilities run by pro-Iran Shia militias fighting under the umbrella of the quasi-official Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) has really stirred the hornet’s nest in Iraq. 

Previously untouched and unscathed, the PMF enjoyed total freedom to move, set up checkpoints, run their own detention camps, and got a taste of the national defence budget and the largely US-supplied armoury. 

Now, senior Iraqi Shia militant leaders are in a panic because they are being targeted by an old and largely untouchable enemy – Israel.

Drone strikes are probably Israeli

The airstrikes appear to carry all the hallmarks of a sophisticated Israeli drone campaign.

The first attack occurred a month ago at the al Shuhada military base near Amerli in Iraq’s northern Salahuddin governorate. Reports suggest that an armed drone struck an Iranian ballistic missile shipment heading to Syria that was being concealed in trucks used to transport refrigerated food. One Iraqi and two Iranians were said to have been killed in that strike.

The second attack occurred at the end of July, this time striking Iranian targets in Camp Ashraf near the Iranian border and just 40 kilometres northeast of Baghdad. Iranian “military advisors” and ballistic missiles that had just arrived in Iraq from Iran were targeted.

The third attack took place last week in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, with the al Saqr military base being the primary target, killing one person and wounding 29 others. 

Al Saqr is in the southwest of Baghdad and is controlled by the Iran-backed PMF. ImageSat International, an Israeli satellite imagery analysis company, has said that the explosion was probably “caused by an airstrike”.

The latest and final strike happened on Tuesday night and was again in Salahuddin, but this time targeting a PMF arms depot at Balad Airbase 64 kilometres north of Baghdad. Footage from outside the base showed billowing clouds of black smoke rising into the air.

While Iraqi police speculated that the “mysterious” explosions were caused by faulty equipment and the extreme heat of an Iraqi summer, an Iraqi parliamentary fact-finding mission concluded that this was not the case and that an unidentified drone was responsible for the explosion. Media are now quoting US officials as confirming that Israel was behind at least the third strike.

The likelihood that the rest of these strikes are also Israeli is quite high. While PMF commanders have blamed both the US and Israel for the strikes, it is unlikely that the Pentagon has struck these targets. 

After all, Washington provided extensive close air support to these militias that were operating as part of the federal police and other units infiltrated by Iran-sponsored outfits during the fighting against Daesh. In other words, the US facilitated and protected militants linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a military force it has now designated in its entirety as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

However, it is likely that the US was informed of Israeli intentions and simply stood aside and let the airstrikes take place. While not exactly the same, the United States was also aware of Israel’s Operation Opera in 1981 where it bombed Iraq’s light water Osirak nuclear reactor, ironically with Iranian intelligence assistance and cooperation. When it comes to its favourite ally's “national security”, the White House will rarely say no to Israel.

Iraqi “countermeasures” will fail

These strikes are ultimately about Israel’s national security interests. Last year, Tel Aviv signalled that it considered Iraq as an elevated security risk and could target Iranian military assets in the country. 

As Iran is continuing to use Iraq as a logistics hub and nexus to smuggle ballistic missiles from Iran to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, it is unsurprising that Israel would rather strike earlier up the logistics chain rather than wait for these missiles to come closer to its borders in the Levant.

As a result of the strikes, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has revoked all licenses for foreign military aircraft to operate in Iraqi airspace without his direct and prior consent and has also ordered all munitions dumps to be moved outside of heavily populated areas. 

The PMF’s deputy commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, blacklisted as a terrorist by the US, has also threatened to use military force against both American and Israeli assets. 

Although national security chief Faleh al Fayyadh has walked back from Muhandis’ threats, Muhandis controls his own militia independently of the PMF and can, therefore, act unilaterally with the IRGC’s permission and support.

That said, Iraq is incapable of policing its own airspace, quite apart from the fact that the PMF lack’s the capability to stop any future attacks. It is clear Israel sought no permission to strike these targets in Iraq and would never do so even if Baghdad demanded it, much as it conducts airstrikes in Syria against other Iranian targets and ballistic missile shipments.

Also, the Iraqi government will find it impossible to enforce its own rules over its airspace as Iraq lacks its own early warning detection systems and its anti-air defences are sparse and lack the capability to intercept advanced unmanned and manned aircraft like those used by the Israeli Air Force and suspected of being used in these four separate attacks. 

Iraq has relied almost exclusively on the United States for air defence and, without the White House’s cooperation, it is highly unlikely Iraq will be able to curtail Israeli designs.

Until Iraq gets out from under both the thumb of the United States and Iran, it can never enforce its own sovereignty. It also continues to leave itself open to attack by allowing – or being powerless to prevent – Iranian use of Iraq as a distribution hub to transport men, material, and cash to its proxies. 

This means that, as long as Tehran continues to move military resources through Iraq, Israel will likely continue to strike targets as and when it deems necessary, and the US will do nothing to stop them.

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