Pro-Iran factions up the ante in Iraq with drone strike

Pro-Iran factions up the ante in Iraq with drone strike

by AFP Staff Writers

Baghdad (AFP) April 16, 2021

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Iraqi civilian killed in Baghdad blast: army

Baghdad (AFP) April 15, 2021 –
An Iraqi man died on Thursday when explosives he was transporting in a vehicle detonated in Baghdad’s densely populated majority-Shiite Sadr City, the army said.

Iraqi authorities are usually quick to announce “terrorist” acts, often blaming the Islamic State group, which has continued to carry out attacks despite its territorial defeat in late 2017.

In the wake of the explosion, reports circulated on social media that it was a car bomb attack, but authorities later said the blast was not intentional.

“The explosion took place inside the vehicle… as it drove near a market” in Sadr City, a statement from the Iraqi military said.

The driver was killed and 12 people in the vicinity of the blast were wounded, it added.

“According to the investigation, the owner of the vehicle was transporting explosives on behalf of an armed group,” a security source told AFP.

Security officials have reported previous incidents of accidental detonations of explosives in the possession of various Shiite armed factions.

An AFP photographer in Sadr City saw burned motorbikes and several charred cars.

Armed pro-Iran Iraqi groups striving to oust all foreign forces from their country Wednesday upped the stakes with a drone attack, a technique favoured elsewhere in the Middle East, experts say.

On the second day of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, in the autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq, the quiet of the day was broken by the news of two simultaneous strikes.

A drone “loaded with TNT”, according to Kurdish authorities, crashed into the headquarters of the anti-jihadists coalition led by the United States at the Arbil airport. Fifty kilometres (30 miles) away in Baashiqa, a rocket killed a Turkish soldier.

“Suicide drones are particularly useful in these types of hits as they can avoid counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems such as C-RAM,” the system deployed by the Americans to protect their troops in Arbil and Baghdad, Hamdi Malik, associate fellow at the Washington Institute, told AFP.

After dozens of rocket attacks — largely launched from the backs of pick-up trucks that then disappear into the countryside — the drone strike marks “an escalation and a sign that Iran-backed militias will use various weapons to attack their targets”, said Malik.

– ‘Open conflict’ –

For analyst Ihsan al-Shammari, “this new attack is a sign of open conflict”.

“The last time there was an attack on Arbil, we thought it was a warning and that it would stop there.”

Two months ago, rockets killed a foreign contractor working for the US-led coalition and an Iraqi civilian in Arbil.

At the same time, another pro-Iran group “claimed to have attacked a Turkish military base in Iraq”, Malik said, adding “the attack was not confirmed”.

Then, as on Wednesday night, a shadowy group posted messages on pro-Iran Telegram channels hailing the attack.

Experts say this is a front for pro-Iran entities that are integrated into regular military forces as part of the Hashed al-Shaabi — a state-sponsored pro-Iran paramilitary coalition — but that nonetheless carry out attacks outside the framework of the Hashed.

The onus for the strikes cannot be placed on any one faction. But recently, a Hashed commander threatened the Turks, who over the past 25 years have set up around a dozen bases across Kurdistan, with authorities in Arbil and Baghdad powerless to stop them.

While Wednesday’s attack was the first suicide drone strike in Iraq, according to one US senior defence official, this method is tried and tested for Iran-aligned groups in the region.

“The Iranian-backed militias have drones now with a 15-foot wingspan. It’s an Iranian-made CAS-04, which we’ve already seen weaponised by the Huthis against Saudi,” the official said, referring to Yemeni rebels aligned with Iran, the regional rival of Saudi Arabia.

In January, drones packed with explosives were intercepted over the royal palace in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

“We know the attack was launched… out of southern Iraq,” added the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

– Increased capacity –

Pro-Iran groups “now have the capacity for a rocket-assisted launch. The range is 1,200-1,500 kilometres if they add fuel tanks to it… These can be pre-programmed with a GPS destination or they can be flown from the ground”, the official said.

To avoid being tracked and intercepted, “they can even be loaded onto a ship from Basra” at the southern tip of Iraq, and brought closer to targets in the Gulf.

Wednesday’s strikes, however, were closer to home, in a country that has for years been a battleground for influence between rivals Iran and the United States.

In the final weeks of US president Donald Trump’s term in office early this year, the main pro-Iran Iraqi factions were at odds over strategy.

Some pressed for a show of force, while others said attacks, such as targeting the American embassy in Baghdad with rocket fire, “violated Iran’s orders to de-escalate until the transition in US administration takes place”, said Malik.

But all the factions could get behind Wednesday’s strikes as being in line with a demand by Shiite Muslim lawmakers to expel foreign troops from Iraq in January 2020, after US-Iran tensions played out again on its soil.

The arch-foes came to the brink of conflict last year when an American drone strike killed Iranian top general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

The call in parliament to expel foreign forces, however, went beyond the US to include Turkish troops, whose bases in Iraq’s mountainous north threaten the Hashed’s control of the territory.

Western powers condemn attacks in Kurdish Iraq: statement

Berlin (AFP) April 16, 2021 –
France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States condemned attacks this week in Iraqi Kurdistan “in the strongest terms” in a joint statement on Friday.

“Together, our governments will support the government of Iraq’s investigation into the attacks to ensure that those responsible will be held accountable,” they said.

The Western powers said they were “united” in the view “that attacks on US and Coalition personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and reiterate our steadfast commitment to the fight against ISIS”.

An attack on Wednesday on an airport in Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, was carried out by drone, according to the Kurdish interior ministry, in an unprecedented escalation of the arms used to target US soldiers based there.

No one was hurt in the blast but a building was damaged.

A Turkish soldier was killed by rocket fire at around the same time at a military base 50 kilometres (30 miles) east in Bashiqa, Ankara said, but there was no immediate confirmation of any link between the two attacks.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the airport drone attack.

But a shadowy pro-Iranian group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam (Guardians of Blood), which claimed responsibility for a similar attack at the airport in February, hailed the blast in pro-Tehran channels on the messaging app Telegram.

Around 20 bomb or rocket attacks have targeted bases housing US soldiers or diplomats in Iraq since President Joe Biden took office at the end of January.

Dozens more took place over the preceding 18 months, with Washington consistently blaming pro-Iran factions.

Washington and Tehran are both allies of Baghdad, but remain sharply at odds over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Pro-Iran groups have been ratcheting up their rhetoric, vowing to ramp up attacks to force out the “occupying” US forces, over a year after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the American troops.

Washington last week committed to withdrawing all remaining combat forces from Iraq, although the two countries did not set a timeline for what would be the second withdrawal since the 2003 invasion.

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Ramadan breeds dread in crisis-hit Iraq

Baghdad (AFP) April 13, 2021

Faced with sharp price rises, a decline in the buying power of the dinar and rising unemployment, Iraqis enter the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with a feeling of dread.

“After a whole day of fasting, we have to eat something,” even if the price of a kilo of tomatoes has more than doubled, said Umm Hussein, a single mother of five who has no salary.

She struggles each month to raise the $45 rent for their modest home.

Like 16 million of Iraq’s 40-million population living under the poverty … read more

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Tomi Guillemette