Pentagon spokesman denies any American involvement in the string of warehouse explosions
Iraqi paramilitary units said on Wednesday they held the U.S. responsible for a string of mysterious blasts in recent weeks at their bases, renewing fears of a possible proxy war.
Over the past month, alleged attacks have targeted four training camps and arms depots used by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of mostly-Shia, pro-Iran paramilitary units opposed to the U.S. There have been no claims of responsibility or media access to the facilities, and rumors have swirled of U.S. or even Israeli involvement in targeting the Hashed.
On Wednesday, the paramilitary group said in a statement it had carried out its own investigation and pointed the finger at the U.S. 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, attributed to Hashed deputy chief Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis.
He said the attacks were carried out by “agents or in special operations with modern airplanes,” without providing further details.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. 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.
Muhandis also said “we have accurate and confirmed information that the U.S. 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 Hashed would deal with any foreign planes flying above its positions without the Iraqi government’s knowledge as “hostile aircraft.” It comes after at least four 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 Hashed 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 Hashed 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 Hashed-run position near the Al-Balad airbase, where U.S. troops are present.
The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq declined to respond directly to the Hashed’s accusations on Wednesday, referring AFP to the Iraqi government. “The U.S. is not involved in the recent warehouse explosions,” Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson told AFP later 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 U.S. 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 coordinated with the United States, as part of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran,” Bitar said.