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What does it mean if Israel bombs an Iranian warehouse in Iraq?

  • Paula
For 38 years, there’s been no mention of Israeli strikes in Iraq. All that changed this week, when the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-35 jets bombed Iranian warehouses storing arms and missiles near Baghdad.
by PAULA SLIER | Aug 01, 2019

According to the newspaper, which cites anonymous Western diplomats, the IAF struck twice in the past month.

At the time of writing, there’s been no comment from the Israel Defense Forces, nor is any expected. Jerusalem has long practiced a policy of keeping mum when it comes to aerial strikes it (allegedly) conducts in enemy countries.

But, usually, those strikes are concentrated in Syria, and are aimed at preventing Iranian shipments of weapons from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They are mostly successful. Which is why it makes sense that Tehran has been looking at building an alternative “missile base”.

The target of the first reported strike in Iraq was food refrigeration trucks that concealed Iranian-produced ballistic missiles. Several Hezbollah officers and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian armed forces tasked with protecting the Islamic system from foreign interference, were killed.

The second attack was on an Iranian base formerly used by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a militia that fought against the Iranian regime. Reports suggest that a number of Iranian advisors were injured, and a shipment of ballistic missiles that had recently been brought from Iran to Iraq was destroyed.

Lending credence to the speculation that Israel was behind the attacks, Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said last week that, “Israel is the only country in the world that has been killing Iranians for two years now.”

Israel “strikes the Iranians hundreds of times in Syria. Sometimes it admits it, and sometimes foreign reports reveal it. We still don’t see the Iranians backing off from their intention to entrench themselves militarily in Syria. This campaign isn’t over.”

Western and Israeli intelligence suggest that, particularly in recent months, Tehran has been providing militia groups in Iraq with dozens of guided ballistic missiles. Already a few weeks ago, Israeli sources warned that Tehran was building a logistical storage base in Iraq for missiles to be deployed to Syria or Lebanon for attacks against Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned Baghdad against allowing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to operate in the country.

So, it makes sense that Jerusalem would do everything in its power to prevent Iran from using Iraq to target the Jewish state. Iraq straddles Syria, and the border area is empty desert and perfect for smugglers to exploit. The bases hit are in this region, and it seems highly likely that Iran was planning to move the missiles into Syria.

Baghdad is in a difficult position. On the one hand, it receives a lot of financial and other help from Tehran, which means it has trouble standing up to it. It relies on the support of pro-Iranian Shiite factions inside the country who naturally refuse to be part of American President Donald Trump’s sanctions regime against Tehran.

On the other hand, Baghdad’s security and stability depends on its relationship with the United States, and the Iraqi government seeks to curry favour with the American government.

Trump still has about 5 200 troops in Iraq, and is hesitant to withdraw them, in part because doing so would force Baghdad to align more closely with Tehran. Iran sees these forces as a direct threat to its interests, and has expressed this to Baghdad in no uncertain terms.

So, Iraq finds itself in a difficult position, and since the new government took power in October last year, its relationship with the US has deteriorated.

Complicating matters – although in Israel’s favour – were comments made a few weeks ago by Fareed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador in Washington. “There are objective reasons that may call for the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel,” he said on 27 June.

A backlash on social media from Iraqi activists and politicians followed, but the ambassador was neither recalled nor punished. The Iraqi foreign ministry said his statements had been misreported, and reiterated the country’s unwavering allegiance to the Palestinian cause. But, no doubt, the ambassador would have first cleared his remarks with the prime minister.

Israel and Iraq share common concerns about an increasingly belligerent Iran. Both have good relations with the Kurds, and there is a sizeable Iraqi Jewish community in Israel. But, still, like Jerusalem’s clandestine relations with Sunni-Arab Gulf capitals Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, full diplomatic ties are a long way off.

As many as 60% of young Iraqis are unemployed – and this is more important to them than the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. However, until the conflict is resolved, it’s unlikely Iraq or any other Arab states for that matter will openly engage with the Jewish state.

If these recent attacks in Iraq were indeed carried out by the IAF – and the feeling in the region is that they were – it’s good that Jerusalem is staying silent. It won’t do its potential relationship with Baghdad any good to be seen to be striking in a sovereign country. Also, it will merely complicate US-Iraqi-Iranian relations.

Still, Israel can’t afford to stop hitting Iranian targets intended to open new fronts against it, whether they be in the Syrian Golan Heights or in Iraq. And, indeed, if these strikes are Israeli, they mark an escalation and expansion of IAF strikes against Iranian forces operating in the region.

* On 7 June 1981 Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction 17km southeast of Baghdad, destroying Saddam Hussein’s nascent nuclear programme. I interviewed the commander of the operation, who said that the rear pilot of the six Israeli fighter jets that carried out the mission was none other than Ilan Ramon who became Israel’s first man in space. At the time, he joked that if the Iraqis retaliated, his plane would be the first to be hit. Tragically, he died in 2003 aboard space shuttle Columbia as it returned to earth.

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