Iran-backed militias display long-range drone power in regional escalation

Tehran has long been suspected of equipping Iraqi militias with drones to hit non-military targets, including oil infrastructure

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Iran-backed militias in Iraq have revealed a collection of long-range drones that could hit other countries in the region, including Israel.

On Sunday, video footage emerged of Iraqi groups in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella organisation of militias, parading an array of apparently new unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Most PMF groups are trained, advised and equipped by Iran, although they have formal status in Iraq's armed forces.

"What I found interesting is that they showed Sammad/UAV-X type drones. Depending on the version, these should have the ability to strike Israel from Iraq," said Fabian Hinz, an independent expert on drone and missile technology proliferation.

PMF groups have used drones since at least 2014, usually smaller ones, in the war against ISIS.

Normally these are used for reconnaissance but small UAVs fitted with explosive charges – so-called kamikaze drones – have been used in at least three attacks on US bases in Iraq this year.

Drones such as the Sammad, designed by Iran, used by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen – and now paraded by the PMF, represent an entirely new threat, having a range in excess of 1,000 kilometres.

Iran has long been suspected of equipping new, secretive militia organisations in Iraq with long-range drones that have been used for attacks against non-military targets, including oil infrastructure, in Saudi Arabia.

Regional chaos

In January, an apparently new Iraqi group calling itself Alwiya Alwaad Al Haq, or the Righteous Pledge Battalion, said a drone attack was mounted against a target in Saudi Arabia “solely by Iraqi hands”.

PMF group Kataib Hezbollah, whose leadership works closely with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, called on other Iraqi militias to follow the same example.

Iraq security specialist Michael Knights at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy believes Kataib Hezbollah plays a central role in drone operations in Iraq.

The group was accused in May 2019 of launching a drone attack against Saudi oil installations.

Aside from these isolated operations, Iran’s supply of high-end drone technology to Iraqi groups has been limited, until now.

"Iraq's militias have been somewhat neglected in terms of tech. Lebanese Hezbollah and Houthis get pretty nice stuff, while the equipment the Iraqis receive seems to be held under dual key. I think that is changing. They need accuracy and Iran is finally releasing that," Mr Knights told The National.

The public presentation of Iran-made drone equipment by PMF groups could represent a regional shift in tactics for Iran.

“What we are seeing with the Iranian supported groups is that some are incredibly open about their equipment, including Hamas and the Houthis. Others so far have been incredibly secretive, including Hezbollah and PMF factions,” Mr Hinz said.

“And I think this slight shift with the Iraqi factions is indeed related to the threats they made during the Gaza war and the new narrative of a regional multifront war.”

On May 14 at the height of the conflict in Gaza, Iraqi militia group Ashab Ahl Kahf, thought by PMF expert Tamer Al Badawi to be linked to an established Iran-backed group called Asaib Ahl Al Haq, claimed to have fired missiles from Syria over the Golan Heights, against Israel.

The Israeli military acknowledged that there had been a rocket attack.

Asaib Ahl Al Haq leader Qais Khazali previously visited the Israel-Lebanon border with Hezbollah commanders in December 2017, promising to fight the Israelis.

Israel has attacked these groups in Syria, part of an air campaign to stop them moving drone and missile equipment, carrying out about 1,000 air strikes in the past three years.

If the groups choose to use Iraqi soil to attack Israel, it could represent a dangerous escalation, pulling Iraq into the zone of Israeli air operations.

If that happened, it would not be the first time Israel has been accused of striking Iraq in recent years.

In the summer of 2019, a number of large explosions rocked PMF ammunition dumps in Iraq, leading to rumours that Israel was already taking action against suspected Iranian weapons in PMF hands.

The New York Times quoted an unidentified US official saying that Israel had carried out the air strikes.

But other unidentified US officials said the explosions were probably the result of poorly stored ammunition in the blazing summer heat, a possibility given that groups not aligned to Iran also experienced ammunition explosions over the summer months, including the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Looming conflict

Political parties in Baghdad were not convinced.

Fatah, a coalition of parties linked to the PMF, called the alleged Israeli air strikes “a declaration of war on Iraq”.

The risk now is that if PMF groups decide to stockpile long-range drones, Israel will carry out regular air strikes.

Any Israeli decision to bomb Iraq would be based on security calculations rather than political considerations, Aurora Intel, an analysis company that closely monitors Israeli air operations in Syria, told The National.

The Iraqi government has struggled to take action against the PMF, with little leverage to protect Iraqi-Coalition bases, or activists that PMF groups stand accused of murdering.

“While we reserve the right to respond to these Zionist attacks, we hold the international coalition, particularly the United States, fully responsible for this aggression," a Fatah statement warned in 2019.

That was no idle threat, and could point to the next crisis.

By the end of 2019, a US contractor had been killed – leading to a major confrontation between the US and Iran, which included the death of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani – at least 100 US soldiers suffering injuries in Iranian missile strikes and the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner, with the loss of 167 lives.