Another mysterious explosion hits pro-Iran militia arms depot in Iraq

The blast is the fourth in less than two months to have hit pro-Tehran militias in the country

epa07781948 Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari holds a joint press conference with his German counterpart at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, Iraq, 20 August 2019.  EPA/AHMED JALIL
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A large explosion has hit an arms depot belonging to an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, the second such attack in eight days.

Iraqi security officials confirmed the blast occurred at a weapons depot for the Popular Mobilisation Forces near the Balad air base in Salaheddin province, north of Baghdad.

Local outlets reported news of the explosion at about 8pm Baghdad time on Tuesday.

Photos of black smoke and reports of rockets flying into the neighbouring area from the explosion were reported on social media:

The initial target of the explosion was the militia’s position near the base, not the depot, Iraqi military officials told Reuters.

But a militia source told the agency that his group’s weapons depot was specifically targeted by an aerial bombardment.

It has been reported that as many as 50 missiles exploded in the incident.

Iraqi officials are yet to confirm the cause of the explosion but the Iraqi Defence Minister, Najah Al Shammari, said the fire was under control.

No immediate casualty count has been released.

The explosion came eight days after a similar incident at another PMF warehouse near Baghdad left 29 casualties.

It is the fourth to occur in two months.

Last month, the Israeli military carried out two strikes against pro-Iranian targets in Iraq.

“Iran has no immunity, anywhere,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The National: "While it's impossible to confirm with total certainty, it looks increasingly likely that Israel has opened up a new front in Iraq, targeting Iranian weapons systems being stored in PMF facilities.

“This is the fourth likely strike in two months. That’s just too much to be a coincidence.

“It’s no secret that Israel and the US have been monitoring Iran’s transfer of strategic weapons systems into Iraq and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned [Iraqi Prime Minister Adel ] Abdul Mahdi about this in May.”

Mike Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said: “Whether or not this is Israel or the US, the Iran Revolutionary Guard-linked militias are spooked by the targeting of weapons depots storing rockets and missiles in Iraq.”

Mr Pregent said the IRGC could no longer protect weapons in Iraq that were destined for Syria, even as the stores were moved.

"It will be interesting to see the Iraqi Government and Security Forces response," to the latest attacks, he told The National.

Mr Pregent said the US had set up defences to protect its troops in Iraq from the recently increasing militia threats.