Iraq has become another front in the Israel-Iran proxy wars in the Middle East. Last July, two suspected attacks were conducted against Iran-allied Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), one in Amerli in Salahuddin governorate north of Baghdad and the other against Camp Ashraf in Diyala governorate, which was previously used by American troops. Israel has been worried that the PMU bases have been serving as a repository for Iranian missiles that could be wielded against it. In January 2019, during a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reported to have discussed the role of the PMU in housing Iranian missiles and hinted that the United States would not object if Israel attacked the facilities.
The first attack resulted in the death of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, Abu Alfazl Sarabian, and several Hezbollah and PMU soldiers. The Iraqis were not sure about the source of the attack while the Iranians considered the IRGC commander a martyr. From Iran’s side, it would make sense to use the PMU to deploy missiles in Iraq; this would increase Tehran’s area of operations and enable it to transport missiles to Syria and Lebanon. Its inventory of ballistic missiles could put Riyadh—or even Tel Aviv—within range if launched from Iraqi territory.
The other attack followed and targeted Camp Ashraf in Diyala governorate, which was once used by the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an organization opposed to the Iranian regime. The base is closer to the Iranian border, making it essential for the IRGC’s operations. It was interesting that these strikes came less than two weeks after Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi ordered the PMU to be integrated entirely into the Iraqi security forces, a step seen as lessening Iranian influence in the country. Soon after the issuance of Abdul-Mahdi’s decree, many PMU factions like Kataeb Hezbollah slammed it and attributed the policy to the result of US and Saudi pressure. Other PMU factions, including those close to Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani such as the Abbas Combat Division, were obedient and quiet, following the orders of the prime minister—as the commander in chief of the armed forces—without resistance.
An attack on August 14 against a weapons depot in Baghdad was also blamed on Israel. An Israeli imaging firm confirmed that the attack on a PMU camp south of Baghdad was carried out by Israeli aircraft; it supported this claim by producing images of the attack. The Iraqi government has remained silent and has not referred to Israel as the responsible party. In fact, most of the government’s statements were verbal and did not hold anyone directly accountable. This clearly exposes the volatile and enfeebled state of the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi prime minister is weak as regards Iranian interests; he has neither the power nor the will to act in more aggressive and vigorous ways. This is perhaps due to his hidden connections with Iranian influence circles inside the Iraqi government or simply because he lacks support from the political and security sectors.
Still, the attacks indicate that Israel is looking to widen its theater of confrontation with Iran to an unwitting Iraq that continues to suffer from foreign interference. Such an Israeli attempt appears to be conducted under the watchful––perhaps colluding––eye of the Trump Administration, which considers itself to be an important player in Iraqi politics.