Iraqi group claiming to be new militia says it was behind attack on Riyadh

Questions surround a statement claiming the attack, which was praised by Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Iran-backed armed group, Hezbollah brigades, march during a military parade marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day in Baghdad, on May 31, 2019. - An initiative started by the late Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Quds Day is held annually on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and calls for Jerusalem to be returned to the Palestinians . (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
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A group claiming to be a new militia organisation in Iraq has said it was responsible for an explosive drone attack against the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh.

The statement could not be independently verified, but was reported and praised by news channels linked to official Iran-backed groups.

The US government condemned the attack, saying it appeared to be “an attempt to target civilians,” but gave no further comment.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Ekhbariyah and Al Hadath Television channels reported on Saturday that an unidentified projectile had been intercepted over the city, citing Ministry of Defence sources.

Unverified images on social media later showed streaks of white smoke in the sky and what appeared to have been a small explosion.

Iraqi claims

An Iraqi group calling itself Alwiya Alwaad Al Haq, or the Righteous Pledge Battalion, said the drone attack had been launched “solely by Iraqi hands,” in a statement on its Telegram social media channel.

While there is currently no information on the group, another Iraqi militia group launched in August 2019 first announced its existence on Twitter.

On Tuesday, notorious Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah praised the attack through its Telegram account – suggesting the Righteous Pledge Battalion’s claim may have some veracity. Kataib Hezbollah called on other Iraqi militias to follow the same example. Notably, Kataib Hezbollah was accused in May 2019 of launching its own drone attack against Saudi Arabian oil installations.

The group’s statement was also quickly reported by Sabreen news, a pro-Iran news outlet linked to Iraqi militias.

Iraqi security analyst Hamdi Malik said Sabreen is linked to Asaib Ahl Al Haq, a radical Shiite militia linked to the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The PMF is a collection of militias ostensibly under Iraqi government command, but many of the groups answer directly to Iran.

Since mid-2019 a number of new militias have emerged in Iraq, including Ashab Ahl Kahf and Usbet Al Thaireen, claiming attacks against US military logistics convoys and the US embassy.

The groups claim they are acting alone – and not at the direction of the PMF or Iran – although many of their statements bear a striking similarity to remarks made by PMF commanders.

These statements often involve threats against Saudi Arabia and outlandish conspiracy theories, using similar terms to Iranian state propaganda. Iranian English-language channel Press TV also translated the Righteous Pledge Battalion’s first statement.

In May 2019, Iraqi militias were suspected of using Jurf Al Sakhar, an area south of Baghdad controlled by Kataib Hezbollah, to launch a drone attack against two oil-pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. The militias would likely have been supplied with Iranian-made drones, some of which have a range in excess of 1,500 kilometres.

Jurf Al Sakhar is now a no-go zone for the Iraqi army which, alongside Iraqi PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi, has increasingly been at odds with the militias.

Mr Al Kadhimi previously ran the Iraqi National Intelligence Agency, raising accusations from some Iran-backed groups that he is an American stooge.

The creation of new Iraqi militias is probably part of a strategy by Iran to deflect blame away from their established allies in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah.

Kataib Hezbollah in particular has come under increasing pressure from Mr Al Kadhimi to obey Iraqi government command, respect human rights in Iraq and refrain from attacking US and Coalition forces, which are assisting the Iraqi army against ISIS.