An obscure Iraqi militant group released footage on October 28 claiming to show testing of a $5 million Russian made TOS-1 Buratino rocket launcher in the desert near Mosul.
The system is capable of flattening entire city blocks and, if true, would mark a major upgrade to the Katyusha-style rocket launchers that Iran-backed militias have fired at US troops and the embassy in recent months.
The video was made by a group calling itself Ashab Al Kahf (people of the cave) a staunchly anti-American group that appeared seemingly from nowhere in August 2019, later claiming attacks on convoys supplying US forces.
In an interview with Flashpoint Intelligence consultancy in August, the group claims to be acting alone, rather than at the direction of Iran.
But Iraqi security analyst Hamdi Malik suggested the system shown in the video was not a TOS-1 and said the group had simply made an inflated claim.
He said the video appears to show a powerful piece of Iranian-made rocket artillery of the kind Iran-backed groups have already used to kill US soldiers in recent years.
But this does not mean the claim is not central to the power struggle between Iran and the US playing out in Iraq.
The continued supply of Iran-made weapons is a dangerous strategy that could lead to direct confrontation between Washington and Tehran.
The suggestion is that Ashab Al Kahf has not only acted with Iranian support, contrary to their claim, but also with the tacit support of pro-Iran groups in Iraq, including the Badr Organisation, which forms part of the second-largest bloc in parliament.
The Badr Organisation is one of the most powerful units in Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) a collection of militias ostensibly linked to the Iraqi government, although many answer to Iran.
Badr Organisation leader Hadi Al Amiri has tried to distance himself from militias like Ashab Al Kahf.
Mr Al Amiri recently condemned groups who were firing rockets at the US embassy and had attacked a British diplomatic convoy.
In October, Kataib Hezbollah, a militia at the vanguard of Iran-backed Iraqi groups, pledged it would end attacks on US interests in Iraq on condition that Washington presented a timetable for withdrawal. Since then, the near weekly attacks on the US embassy and bases housing US troops have ceased.
But despite this pledge, and leaders like Mr Al Amiri condemning such action, the acquisition of skills by groups such as Ashab Al Kahf is part of Iran’s near two-decade attempt to confuse the situation in Iraq, experts say.
Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security issues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iran has co-ordinated with its allies in Iraq to create confusion about its activities, from attacks on foreign forces to the movement of equipment into Syria.
“Cultivating confusion over the identity and sponsorship of militant cells is very useful for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. It allows groups like Ashab Al Kahf to pretend they are Iraqi nationalist groups, instead of extensions of a foreign intelligence service.
"It means if they make mistakes, such as killing civilians in rocket or bomb attacks, the brand can easily be discarded,” Mr Knights said.
Ashab Al Kahf, he said, could well carry out attacks on diplomats.
“If Ashab kills protest leaders or diplomats, other militia can distance from it,” Mr Knights said.
Politicians or warlords?
The strategy of sowing confusion around its activities in Iraq is an approach adopted by Tehran since 2003.
But because Washington is no longer convinced by this ruse, it is high risk.
PMF-linked groups like the Badr Organisation fit this strategy. Part political party, part militia, after 2003 the group infiltrated Iraq’s security apparatus, in particular, the US-trained and equipped police.
The organisation later presented itself as having a political focus. In 2011, Mr Al Amiri visited Washington, even visiting the Oval Office as part of a larger delegation.
“Badr wants to continue this double role that it's playing, benefiting from US support to the economy, and at the same time advancing Iran’s influence in Iraq,” Mr Malik said.
But since the war with ISIS, it has cultivated expertise in rocket artillery, a skill previously mastered by Kataib Hezbollah, a notorious PMF group that has been accused of a wide range of human rights abuses, as well as lethal attacks on US and Iraqi soldiers.
Kataib Hezbollah was once a little-known fringe group in the web of Iran-backed militias until its lethal strikes against the US brought it a level of notoriety. Now, it sits atop that web as one of the most powerful and aggressive factions but is less able to operate in the shadows given the level of scrutiny its actions have brought.
A sudden escalation
Trying to obscure the links between more official, state-linked groups such as the Badr Organisation and Ashab Al Kahf is risky for Iran.
Last December, an Iraqi-American contractor was killed in a PMF rocket attack on an Iraqi-US army base in northern Iraq, after dozens of similar attacks, many of which used rocket systems of Iranian origin, according to Alex Almeida, Iraq security analyst at energy consultancy Horizon Client Access.
The US retaliated against Kataib Hezbollah with heavy air strikes, killing 25 of the group.
Kataib Hezbollah’s commander, and de facto PMF head, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandes, along with high-profile Iranian Gen Qassem Suleimani, did not survive the ensuing violence. Both were killed in a US drone strike on January 3, near Baghdad airport.
Surviving leaders of Kataib Hezbollah accused Iraqi PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi of complicity in the attack, through his former role as director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
For Mr Al Amiri, the deaths of Muhandes and Suleimani was a loss of two close friends.
But within days of the drone attack, Iran fired ballistic missiles at Iraqi-US bases, injuring at least 100 soldiers and bringing the two nations to the brink of war.
This is not the first time Kataib Hezbollah has pushed US patience to the brink.
In 2011, the group fired volleys of 240mm rockets – similar in size to the kind of projectiles fired by the TOS-1, at US forces as they prepared to leave Iraq.
Fifteen American soldiers perished in the attacks within the space of a month.
Since then, Iran has continued to funnel similar weaponry to its proxies, according to Mr Almeida.
“Iran has been flowing material covertly to Kataib Hezbollah for a couple of years now. They store that stuff at the big Kataib Hezbollah complex in Jurf Al Sakhr,” said Mr Almeida, referring to a town brutally cleared of civilians by the group in 2014.
Even though a dizzying array of groups appear, all with similar but slightly differing anti-American agendas, they almost all – the experts say – link back to Badr Organisation or Kataib Hezbollah.
Kataib Hezbollah and its PMF allies are determined to seek revenge for Muhandes’ death, while Mr Al Amiri has claimed that US forces must be made to leave through legal means, after a parliamentary vote to remove them.
“Iran has always been playing a dangerous game in Iraq, killing hundreds of US soldiers when America had more than 160,000 men in the country. But Iran and its proxies have greatly benefited, and still benefit from this strategy,” Mr Malik said.
But it appears that the actual threat by the US to withdraw caused concern among Iran-backed groups.
Mr Malik said that the US threat to close its embassy in Baghdad in September caused brief concern in the Badr Organisation and Kataib Hezbollah, because it risked eliminating any leverage the groups have to threaten the US.
Unpicking a tangled web
Iraq’s new prime minister, Mr Al Kadhimi, has attempted to reform the state in incremental steps while preparing for elections to meet the demands of tens of thousands of youth who protested across the south and the capital since last October.
One of the key challenges he faces, however, is what to do about the powerful militias over which he has only nominal control.
“The best countermeasure to these blurring tactics is to publicise the people, their real names and the locations, bank accounts and phone numbers that tie these fake movements to real targets, which can then be linked to Kataib Hezbollah and Iran,” Mr Knights said.
That would be a tough task for Mr Al Kadhimi, according to Mr Almeida. Regardless of the weapon system used by Ashab Al Kahf, the message was defiance.
The group’s message, Mr Almeida said, was that “we can drive around with this launcher system and do these test fires and there’s nothing you can do about it”.
For now, Ashab Al Kahf remains an obscure group with an unclear link to Iran.
Their video of the test firing might indicate that the group now occupies the ground Kataib Hezbollah once did, when it went from an obscure group to the main reason the US and Iran were brought to the brink of war.