Last Friday’s drone assault against the Al-Shuhada base in Iraq that belongs to the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militia adds a new dimension to the escalating tensions in the region.
According to the reported details, the incident in terms of method and targets is consistent with the low-intensity confrontations in the region between Iran and the US.
Iraq is a possible if not highly likely candidate as a theatre for these confrontations, especially given that the first episodes in the long arch of escalation between Washington and Tehran took place in Iraq before shifting to the Gulf.
Analysts see the recent attack against the militia camp in Iraq as a sign of the failure of the attempts to contain the Iran and the US and its allies that has been seething since the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran.
They also predict that the territorial scope of this crisis will expand further, with some observers forecasting an active Israeli involvement in the process.
The Iraqi theatre is unique in that all the players (US forces, Iranian experts and advisers, assorted militias) are on the ground, making it a potential tinderbox amid the mounting tensions.
So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the strike against the militia base. Who would stand to benefit from this attack against a major base for arming and training a pro-Iranian militia that is a member of the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)? Out of many possible scenarios, three seem the most likely.
First, there is the US Aside for the nature of the target and the precision of the strike, the agency that carried it out would have to possess sophisticated drone technologies plus certain intelligence about the site itself.
According to news reports, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forced to make an unscheduled visit to Iraq in May after having received intelligence that Iran had smuggled ballistic missiles into Basra.
Prior to this, US President Donald Trump’s announcement in January that US forces stationed in Syria would be transferred to Iraq in order to keep tabs on Iran triggered a major controversy in Iraq over the future of US troop withdrawals.
While the US hastened to deny an intention to change its plans, it has simultaneously stressed that it would respond to any threat against its forces in Iraq.
According to local Iraqi news outlets, the US military had been monitoring the Al-Shuhada base because of suspicions that it housed Iranian missiles.
Some US news reports have speculated that the drone that struck an Aramco site in Saudi Arabia in May might have been launched from that base.
In addition, Washington and Tehran have been trading accusations over recent drone incidents. One was a US drone downed by Iran last month after entering Iranian airspace.
Washington denied that the drone had entered Iranian airspace. The second incident occurred last week and involved an Iranian drone that, according to Trump, was intercepted as it was approaching a US warship. Iran denies even having had a drone in the air in the vicinity at the time.
Second, there is Israel. Some analysts have suggested Israel as the possible agent of the attack. Israel would have a number of motives, not least the belief that Iranian transfers of ballistic missiles into Iraq is the first stage to their subsequent transfer to Syria.
Observers have also pointed out that the location of the Al-Shuhada camp, situated in the mountains near Tuz Khurmato which are controlled by the PMF is an ideal location for staging a ballistic missile attack against Israel in the event of any eruption of hostilities.
Accordingly, the Al-Shuhada attack might be classed as a pre-emptive action, but as is often the case with Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, Israel refrained from officially taking the credit.
If this hypothesis is correct, then it would constitute a precedent in the history of the Israeli-Iranian confrontation on the Syrian front.
Adding weight to this hypothesis are reports of Israeli satellite surveillance of Iranian movements across the Iranian border with Iraq and the Iraqi border with Syria. In fact, it was through Israeli intelligence that the US got wind of the stockpiles of Iranian missiles in Iraq.
Analysts also cite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent warning to Tehran that Israeli warplanes could strike anywhere in the Middle East, “including Iran and Syria.”
But there is another interesting theory that has circulated among news outlets affiliated with the PMF, which holds that the camp was struck by three Israeli-guided loitering munitions warheads fired from an F-16 from within Iraqi airspace at a point above the juncture of the Baghdad-Amman and Baghdad-Damascus international highways.
Third, there is the Islamic State (IS) group. Some Iraqi security sources have argued that IS was responsible for the attack, but the hypothesis is weak.
The terrorist organisation is under attack in the Saladdin Governorate in Iraq in the framework of the Will for Victory operations and does not have the capacities to stage a strike of this nature.
Even at the height of its power, IS did not possess such capacities to judge from its previous use of drones. In addition, IS did not claim responsibility for the attack.
The drone bombing of the Al-Shuhada Camp is highly significant at several levels.
The camp is strategically important as it serves as a storehouse and development facility for Iranian-made missiles and as an Iranian Al-Quds Force command centre overseen by Iqbal Bur, an aide to the commander of the Force, Qassem Suleimani.
It is therefore a base likely to come into the crosshairs of any number of parties, especially in the light of recent intelligence regarding covert Iranian missile shipments into Basra and the stockpiling of these weapons in bases that are controlled by pro-Iranian militias and in which there are Iranian and Hizbullah advisers and experts.
As mentioned above, the party responsible for the attack had to possess the technology, proficiency and intelligence to stage a strike that contained the elements of high-precision and surprise.
The target was struck twice within the space of half an hour, using two assault drones, each carrying two bombs capable of destroying stockpiled missiles and the arsenals housing them.
Such capacities are unlikely to be available among the local militias. They have never been used before in the Iraqi theatre and their presence has never been detected among the militia groups.
On the other hand, there still remains the possibility that the strike was carried out using guided missiles fired from assault aircraft.
At another level, the strike is significant in terms of the rules of engagement in Iraq between Washington and Tehran. The relationship has swung entirely from “coordination,” albeit through Iraq, to “confrontation,” so far confined to a low-intensity level.
The shift is clearly related to the more general strategic shifts of the two parties. Iran has moved from the defensive (to protect and safeguard its regional reach to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria) to the offensive in the framework of the escalation with the West.
The US, as well as Israel which has been closely monitoring Iranian behaviour in the region, may have been galvanised into action to prevent Iraq from becoming an Iranian weapons storehouse and a forward staging point for Iranian military actions as occurred in Syria.
Just because no party has taken responsibility or been blamed for the strike does not mean that the identity of the attacker is not known or at least strongly suspected.
Therefore, we can anticipate an attempt to retaliate on the part of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, especially given the mounting tensions between them and the US. Just the day before the strike, the US imposed sanctions on four prominent individuals connected with the PMF.
As for Iran, even if it subscribes to the theory that Israel was responsible for the attack, it would be more inclined to take retaliatory action against the US. Tehran realises that an attempt to strike Israel could spark a full-scale war. At all events, Iran and its proxies make little distinction between the US and Israel.
On the other hand, if Israel were indeed responsible for the attack this signifies that it has grown so uncomfortable with the Iranian presence in Iraq that it is willing to take direct action.
Some analysts fear that Iraq is poised to become a second theatre, after Syria, for Israeli aerial offensives against Iranian targets. There are six pro-Iranian camps in the region in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are also known to be active.
At another level, the strike against a major base belonging to one of the PMF factions will be detrimental to the Iraqi drive to integrate the PMF militias into the Iraqi national army.
The six-month grace period for this process that the Iraqi prime minister announced in January has almost expired. So far, the response from the militias has been far from enthusiastic and now, in the wake of the attack against the base, militia leaders will probably dig in their heels against the integration drive.
Iraq, as a front for the confrontation between Iran and its adversaries, could become the most perilous arena in this ongoing crisis in view of its demographics. The country, struggling with the cumulative effects of one crisis after the other for so long, my not have the resilience to sustain additional burdens.
More generally, the repercussions of the changing rules of engagement between Tehran and Washington in Iraq is likely to extend beyond the Iraqi theatre to encompass configurations in the regional balances between the two in ways that could also be detrimental to Iraq and its regional role.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Escalating tensions in Iraq