Explosion at Iraqi weapons depot sparks speculation about Israeli role

Many Iraqi analysts blamed Israel, which has frequently targeted Iranian positions across the region.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base south-west of Baghdad, August 12. (AP)
Shrouded in mystery. Plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base south-west of Baghdad, August 12. (AP)

BAGHDAD - A massive explosion at a weapons depot at an Iran-backed military base near Baghdad heightened security concerns and raised questions about Iraq’s ability to protect its sovereignty.

The blast August 12 at al-Saqr military base south of Baghdad killed one person and wounded at least 31 others. The explosions sent projectiles into residential areas, including al-Doura district, officials said. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi ordered an investigation into the incident.

Mokhalad al-Dulaimi, who lives near the explosion site, said: “At first I heard two strong explosions. The third came after but it was horrifying. I pushed myself out of the door and I saw the smoke filling the sky and its smell was throughout the home.

“The explosion sounds continued around two hours. Many houses were destroyed. Roads were blocked and people were horrified and went into the streets to save their life.”

Raghad Qasim, from al-Doura, said: “At 6.30pm, I heard an extremely loud sound. It was followed by fires and the rockets hit and destroyed some houses. Many were wounded and lots of families were evacuated from their houses.”

Other people said they saw a drone above the depot just before the explosion.

The International Statistical Institute said satellite imagery indicated “it is probable that the blast was caused by an air strike, followed by secondary explosions of explosives stored in the place.”

Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesperson Saad Maan said the cause of the explosion remained unclear but a security source said it was likely due to poor storage conditions and high temperatures.

However, many Iraqi analysts blamed Israel, which has frequently targeted Iranian positions across the region and is believed to be waging a campaign against Iran-backed militias.

“We believe the weapons depot was targeted by an oppressive colonial state on the basis of a treasonous Iraqi act,” former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Baha al-Araji posted on Twitter.

Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted an unidentified source saying Israel conducted the strike as part of a campaign that began in Syria to dismantle Iran-backed militias.

Iraqi professor Ghazi Faisal Hussein, a specialist of international relations and political development, said: “It is probable that the strike was carried out by Israel.”

The attack, he added, would be “a continuation of the strikes on the military positions of Iran and the Iran’s [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] IRGC in Syria and Iraq. They may be used as military bases. This poses a security threat to Iraq and a great danger to the life of people, hence missiles are placed in a residential area and should be placed in the desert.”

“Iran must respect the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, including Iraq. Today, Iraq is under Iranian control and controls the internal Iraqi situation,” Hussein said.

Political analyst Entifaq Qanbar also argued that Iran was putting Iraq at risk, writing on Twitter that “Iran is aiming to use Iraq as a war zone to face US pressure.”

With US sanctions hitting Iran’s economy, Tehran has sought to hide its heavy weapons in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to preserve its influence. The Iraqi government has done little to address the issue.

For decades, Iran has sought to establish a powerful presence in Iraq, including within the country’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). IRGC leaders took key positions in the PMF, helping expand Tehran’s proxy network.

While the United States has listed the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, the Iraqi federal government has relied on many of its leaders in the fight against the Islamic State.

In 2016, Iraq’s Representatives Council legalised Iran-backed militias’ presence in Iraq, leading to the creation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces’ security force. Iran provided the PMF with weapons and training as they fought alongside the Iraqi Army.

That same year, an explosion occurred at a PMF weapons depot in eastern Baghdad. The PMF did not take responsibility at the time, nor did the Iraqi Security Forces provide a clear explanation.

On August 15, Abdul-Mahdi prohibited military flights without permission from the prime minister and ordered all military camps and munitions warehouses be moved outside Iraqi cities.