US, Iranian showdown generates drone and rocket attacks over Baghdad

Recent attack, believed to have been carried out by American drones, destroyed medium-range missiles that the Revolutionary Guards recently transferred from Iran to Iraq for temporary storage on their way to Syria.
Wednesday 29/07/2020
Vehicles of the Iraqi army block the entrance to the capital Baghdad’s suburb of Sadr City. (AFP)
Vehicles of the Iraqi army block the entrance to the capital Baghdad’s suburb of Sadr City. (AFP)

Baghdad - For all practical purposes, Iraq has become the new battle ground for Iran and the United States, as their drone vs. Katyusha rockets exchanges embody an advanced level of confrontation between the two countries.

On Monday, two Iraqi military camps north of Baghdad, hosting American troops were hit in two separate attacks by Katyusha rockets, one day after a series of explosions rocked another Iraqi camp south of the Iraqi capital, used by pro-Iranian militias to store their weapons.

This week’s events began when a huge explosion occurred inside a camp used jointly by the Federal Police Forces affiliated with the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and one of the brigades of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), namely the 45th Brigade of the Kata’eb Hezbollah militia, which is closely tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Despite eyewitness testimonies confirming the presence of a flying object over the camp at the time of the explosion, the security authorities said that the explosion was caused by the extreme summer heat in one of the equipment warehouses in the camp. This version was immediately adopted by Muhannad al-Aqabi, information director of the PMF.

This account of the events, however, did not hold for long and was subsequently deleted from official authorities’ websites. It has been pointed out that this very same camp, and even perhaps the very same spot, was the target of an attack, exactly one year ago, in the context of a series of unknown attacks that destroyed the ammunition warehouses of most of the pro-Iranian militias within the PMF.

Informed sources said that the recent attack, believed to have been carried out by American drones, destroyed medium-range missiles that the Revolutionary Guards recently transferred from Iran to Iraq for temporary storage on their way to Syria.

Pictures of the attack site at Saqr Camp showed that the largest part of the weapons warehouse has completely disappeared, exactly like when it was attacked a year ago.

Less than 24 hours after that attack, two Iraqi camps hosting American forces north of Baghdad were subjected to two separate Katyusha attacks.

But if the attack on Saqr Camp, believed to be American, had caused tremendous damage and the destruction of expensive ammunition and missiles, the Katyusha rockets, believed to have been launched by Iranian-backed militias, seem to always fall in mostly empty sites inside Iraqi camps.

The competent Iraqi authorities provided only scant information about the Katyusha attacks, but observers had placed them in a context of revenge moves aimed at creating a balance in the public opinion, lest that any scenario highlighting the weakness of Iran’s allies in Iraq develops.

Observers pointed out that the repeated attacks where pro-Iranian militias’ missiles fall on empty spaces inside Iraqi camps hosting American troops carry two messages. The first one is that the groups that launch these attacks are capable of precisely hitting their intended targets, and that is why they tend to steer away from the easily targeted spots inside the camps where American troops and equipment are. The second message is that Iran does not want to get involved in killing American soldiers, since such acts would expose it to a full-blown war.

A katyusha rocket launcher found by the Iraqi Army, is seen in a rural area in western Baghdad.  (AFP)
A katyusha rocket launcher found by the Iraqi Army, is seen in a rural area in western Baghdad. (AFP)

Observers said that the current confrontation between the United States and Iran is closer to a one-sided war of attrition than to anything else since Washington keeps destroying weapon supplies of the militia groups linked to Tehran, but receives mild responses in return.

The loose security conditions in Iraq allow all parties possessing the right capabilities to carry out military operations against their opponents to do so in total impunity, which makes Iraq a continuous security hotspot.

Leaders of pro-Iranian militias accuse the official military and security services in Baghdad of helping the Americans target them and their groups.

Anti-terror and intelligence services and some army units are constantly being accused of working for the United States and helping it locate militia leaders and weapon warehouses in various regions of the country, as none of these storage facilities hasescaped US drone attacks during the past two years.

Many Iraqis joke that US drones might be the only solution for dealing with the pro-Iranian militias in their country, and with their leaders who see themselves in positions above the state and above the law.

Observers said that a quick reality check shows that the Iraqi armed forces may not be ready to engage in an open confrontation with the pro-Iranian militias, for several reasons.

The militias are very capable and willing to blackmail the armed forces officers by kidnapping members of their families and threatening to eliminate them. Such eventuality did actually occur last month when the anti-terrorist services of the Iraqi security forces arrested and detained a number of Hezbollah Brigades militia fighters who were caught planning to carry out a missile attack on Baghdad airport.

At that time, the Kata’eb militia quickly surrounded the homes of officers who participated in the arrest operation south of Baghdad, detained their families and threatened to kill them, unless the detainees were released.

US army drones at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. (Reuters)
US army drones at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. (Reuters)

It does not seem to be a mere coincidence that the very location south of Baghdad where the militia members were arrested happened to be near the camp that was targeted on Sunday.

Observers pointed out that this situation may continue for some time and will not change unless another party stands up to Iran’s militias in Iraq.