The Iraq Report: Shia militias look into air defences

The Iraq Report: Shia militias look into air defences against Israel

8 min read
07 September, 2019
Powerful Iran-linked Shia militants have been repeatedly targeted in airstrikes conducted around the country.
PMF have taken measures to attempt to beef up their air defences [Getty]

The past couple of months have seen an increase in suspected Israeli activity in Iraq, as powerful Iran-linked Shia militants have been repeatedly targeted in airstrikes conducted around the country.

While the Iraqi government was initially cagey about naming Israel, it appears to have now lost its timidity and is now openly blaming the country that it has been technically at war with since 1948.

As a result, the Iran-backed but Iraq-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have taken measures to attempt to beef up their air defences to be able to protect their bases and military assets from the suspected Israeli strikes.

The Shia fundamentalists and Iran loyalists have allegedly been targeted for their role in transporting ballistic missiles to various other Iran proxies, including to Hizballah in Lebanon via Syria, something Israel will not tolerate.

PMF starts air defence division to fend off Israel

Leaked documents published by the Iraqi media on Wednesday appear to confirm that the Iran-linked PMF has formally decided to establish an "air force" to be able to fend off suspected Israeli air attacks that have ravaged several PMF bases in recent months. 

According to these documents, senior PMF commander and US-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis had agreed with fellow PMF chief Falih al-Fayyadh as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi to establish air defence countermeasures after a wave of attacks targeted the organisation.

While the description of these measures as being an "air force" are far-fetched considering it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to buy warplanes, build hangars for them, and train pilots to fly them, it is likely that what is being referenced is in fact air defence systems, particularly Surface-to-Air missile systems (SAM).

The Iran-linked PMF has formally decided to establish an 'air force' to be able to fend off suspected Israeli air attacks that have ravaged several PMF bases in recent months

The Iraqi government has denied that the PMF will be establishing its own air defence force, but its denials ring hollow when days before the leak Fayyadh was in Moscow on Monday evening. Fayyadh's office claimed that he was there to "improve bilateral ties" but his role as PMF chief as well as national security adviser is primarily military-facing and not diplomatic.

Sources speaking to The New Arab indicated that Fayyadh was instead visiting the Russian capital in order to secure air defence systems to be able to deter any further strikes. Last week, Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi met with Russian ambassador Maxim Maksimov in Baghdad and said that Moscow had agreed to support Iraq's air defences.

Russia enjoys close ties with both Israel and Iran and while reports suggest both the United States and Russia gave the green light for Israel to conduct its strikes, Moscow's willingness to help beef up Iraq's air defences may seem to be curious.

The PMF may be formally part of the Iraqi armed forces, but it is very much an Iran-controlled force with much of its manpower and senior commanders, such as Muhandis, serving proxies operating on behalf of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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However, it would appear that Russia wants to spread its influence even further across the Middle East beyond Syria and stands to gain from the mere threat of Israeli interventionism and airstrikes. By agreeing to Israel striking PMF targets that are smuggling Iranian weapons to Syria, Russia can play both sides of the fence by also selling air defence weapons to Iraq.

In this way, Russia balances its alliance with Israel by looking the other way when it strikes targets associated with the IRGC and simultaneously keeps Iran happy by selling arms to its richest client state, Iraq.

US, Israel blamed for anti-militia strikes

Last week Iraq also began preparing a complaint to the United Nations after a government inquiry concluded that Israel was indeed behind "some" of the attacks against PMF forces.

Speaking on behalf of the Fatah parliamentary bloc, that represents the interests of the PMF and other hardline Shia religious groups in the Iraqi legislature, Ahmad al-Assadi said that the perpetrators of the attacks were "absolutely, certainly Israel".

PMF top officials have said the US is broadly "responsible" but specifically blamed Israeli drones for the latest strike almost two weeks ago which killed a Shia militant near Iraq's western border with Syria.

The Pentagon has denied responsibility and said it is cooperating with Iraq's investigations, but Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its role. 

Assadi told reporters the US involvement remained unclear, dulling the group's earlier accusations.

"Israeli planes supported by the US? We can't make that accusation. Did America give a green light? We can't make that accusation," he said.

But, he added, the PMF had been expecting an attack amid rising US-Iranian tensions since Washington withdrew from the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran last year.

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The US has since imposed tough sanctions on Iran's top officials, its energy and financial sectors, as well as a host of Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian firms and people allegedly tied to Tehran.

"Are the attacks that happened surprising for the Iraqi government, the Hashed, or other factions? Of course not," Assadi said, using the Arabic name for the PMF. 

"It's clear. The Hashed is being specifically targeted."

While Fatah, who came runners up in last year's elections, have hesitated to directly link the US to Israel's alleged actions, other militant groups linked to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc won the most seats, have directly threatened Washington.

The Sadrist-linked Jund al-Imam al-Hujja group threatened US President Donald Trump with bloody consequences if he did not withdraw all American troops from Iraq. The Shia militants threatened both civilian and military targets.

Their threats follow comments made by Sadr himself almost two weeks ago when he rejected the idea that Israel could be behind the attacks, focusing the blame squarely on the US. According to Sadr, Israel would not dare to attack the Shia militants as "the Zionists know their end will come from Iraq."

While this can all be brushed off as bluster, it does raise some concerns for US policymakers, particularly as other Iran-linked militants such as Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada have last week threatened to take all Americans in Iraq, civilian or military, hostage in the event of any outbreak of hostilities with Iran.

There is precedent to this, as in 1979 radicals stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats and civilians hostage for 444 days. In more times, both civil and military bases in Iraq have seen an uptick in attacks since Trump's "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign against Iran was ramped up.

US officials may decide that curtailing Iran in general may require curtailing Tehran's proxies in the region in general, and this would of course affect militants operating in Iraq and who also hold political positions.

IDPs forced home from camps despite dangers

The United Nations on Monday criticised Iraqi authorities for transferring around 1,600 people from camps to their areas of origin, saying the returns could put them in danger.

The returnees, who fled violence during and after the Islamic State group's 2014 seizure of swathes of Iraq, had sought refuge at displacement camps in the northern province of Nineveh.

Since 23 August Iraqi authorities have transferred about 300 families, an estimated 1,600 people, from the three camps to their provinces of origin. 

The transfers took place despite humanitarian groups' concerns that the families had no homes or access to services and may be targeted by their home communities for perceived links to IS.

Returnees had 'expressed fears that they would be threatened upon their return, and had reportedly received threatening phone calls from community members in their areas of origin warning against return'

The UN said on Monday returnees had "expressed fears that they would be threatened upon their return, and had reportedly received threatening phone calls from community members in their areas of origin warning against return."

The government has stressed its policy is for all those displaced to return home and for camps to be shut.

Last week, AFP journalists witnessed transfers from the Hammam al-Alil camp in Nineveh province of hundreds of Iraqis originally from Kirkuk, further south. Women and children, some of them crying, were loaded onto buses by security forces. Some said they did not know where they were being taken.

The transfers often happened "with little notice or apparent planning", the UN's Iraq humanitarian coordinator, Marta Ruedas, said on Monday. 

"I am concerned about the lack of organisation and advanced communication with affected communities and humanitarian partners," she said. 

In some cases, the UN said, security forces denied families entry to camps in their home provinces, displacing them a second time. 

In the worst case of violence against returnees so far, three hand grenades were thrown into the Basateen camp in Iraq's Salahaddin governorate on Sunday, a day after the arrival of 150 displaced families from Nineveh.

The vast majority of IDPs in Iraq are from the Sunni Arab demographic who have historically been marginalised since the US-led invasion in 2003.

If government actions against this community continue to be so heavy-handed, it is highly likely that it will cause a further disconnect between a key part of Iraq's social fabric and the state, with an as yet untold price to pay for short-sighted sectarianism.


The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab.

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