Pro-Iran paramilitary blame US for mysterious Iraq base attacks

The alleged attacks have targeted training camps and arms depots used by pro-Iran paramilitary units opposed to the US

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 12, 2019 file photo, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. A fact-finding committee appointed by the Iraqi government to investigate a massive munitions depot explosion near the capital Baghdad has concluded that the blast was the result of a drone strike. A copy of the report was obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed, File)
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The head of an Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary unit appeared to be walking back on a claim that Israeli and US drones attacks had caused a series of mysterious blasts at their bases in recent weeks.

Faleh Al Fayyadh on Thursday said that his deputy, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, didn’t represent the view of the entire largely-Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces group or the Iraqi government when he said that the US and Israel had carried out attacks.

But Al Fayyadh alleged the attacks on the bases over the past weeks “were the result of an act organized by a foreign side,” without naming anyone in particular.

The statement highlights divisions within the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is largely run by Mr Al Muhandis, a military commander known for his anti-American sentiments.

Over the past month, there have been several explosions at training camps and arms depots used by the Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi – a network of pro-Iran paramilitary units formed in the battle against ISIS that are opposed to the US.

There have been no claims of responsibility or media access to the facilities, and rumours have swirled.

On Wednesday, Mr Al Muhandis said in a statement the PMF had carried out its own investigation and pointed the finger at the US military, but also accused Israel of infringing Iraqi airspace.

"We announce that the first and last entity responsible for what happened are American forces, and we will hold them responsible for whatever happens from today onwards," said the statement.

He said the attacks were carried out by "agents or in special operations with modern aeroplanes," without providing further details.

Tensions between Iran and the US have soared since May 2018, when President Donald Trump's administration unilaterally pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear accord agreed by major world powers with Tehran.

Mr Al Muhandis also said "we have accurate and confirmed information that the US this year allowed four Israeli drones to enter via Azerbaijan … to target Iraqi military headquarters".

He stopped short of explicitly accusing Israel of carrying out raids and did not clarify whether alleged Israeli drone activity had any relation to the attacks over the last month.

The statement also said the PMF would deal with any foreign planes flying above its positions without the Iraqi government's knowledge as "hostile aircraft."

It comes after at several suspicious incidents at its positions, starting at a base in Iraq's central Amerli region.

One Iraqi fighter was killed and two Iranians wounded in what the PMF said was a fire caused by a technical error, but the Iraqi joint operations command attributed it to shelling by "an unidentified drone".

Explosions were then reported at a PMF base in Diyala, and last week massive blasts went off at the Saqr military camp south of Baghdad.

In reaction, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi ordered an investigation and said any air operations by "Iraqi and non-Iraqi entities" would need his approval.

On Wednesday, a government source who saw the probe's preliminary results said it recorded three warplanes flying near the Saqr base but no proof of shelling.

The final incident took place on Tuesday at a PMF-run position near the Al Balad airbase, where US troops are present.

The US-led coalition in Iraq declined to respond directly to the PMF’s accusations on Wednesday, simply pointing questions to the Iraqi government.

"The US is not involved in the recent warehouse explosions," Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson said on Wednesday.

"We are complying with Iraqi government directives about the use of their airspace," he added.

Earlier this summer, a string of rocket attacks targeted several bases where US troops are stationed as well as American commercial interests.

But observers say the latest reported attacks on the Hashed indicate another player, Israel, may be involved.

Israel has repeatedly warned it would act to stop what it says is Tehran's expansionism in the region, and it has carried out strikes against Iranian forces in Syria.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the Iraqi incidents but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at involvement this week, saying his country would "act against (Iran) whenever necessary."

"I've said that Iran doesn't have immunity anywhere, and I meant that," he told journalists in Kiev, after he was asked about the attacks in Iraq.

One of Israel's biggest security concerns is the possibility that Iran could transfer rockets by land to its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that could then be used to attack Israel.

The Hashed fought alongside the Iraqi military to oust the Islamic State group from swathes of Iraqi territory the jihadists seized in 2014.

Karim Bitar, a senior fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, also said Israel was a likely culprit.

"This strategy is probably co-ordinated with the United States, as part of the Trump administration's 'maximum pressure' campaign against Iran," Mr Bitar said.