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'Mystery drone strike' targets Iraq Shia militia base

The Popular Mobilisation Forces were the target of the attack [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 August, 2019

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Unknown aerial bombardment targeted a base for Iraq's Iranian-backed paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces on Tuesday, the latest in a string of attacks against the militia.
Drone strikes on a position held by Iraqi Shia paramilitaries next to Balad air base, north of Baghdad, on Tuesday caused several explosions, Iraqi military officials said. 

The blasts struck near the Balad base, which hosts US forces and contractors, some 80 km (50 miles) north of the capital. 

Iraq's Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces, which played a pivotal role in defeating the Islamic State group in the country, are based nearby and were the target of the attack, a military official said.

A source from the paramilitary force said a weapons depot belonging to his group was targeted in the bombardment. 

Iraq's interior ministry launched an investigation into the mysterious attack that took place just a week after a similar large explosion at an ammunition depot southwest of the capital injured 13 people.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks however Iraqi authorities suspended all licences for foreign military aircraft following the blasts at the Iranian-backed militia base, which it believed was caused by a suspected Israeli airstrike, a statement by the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said.

The suspension came in response to the suspected airstrike on the Al-Saqr weapons depot, which belonged to an Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia, part of the quasi-official Popular Mobilisation Forces [PMF].

ImageSat, an Israeli satellite observation company, earlier said an airstrike was probably the cause of the large explosion at the Al-Saqr weapons depot southwest of the Iraqi capital Baghdad which took place earlier this month.

One person was killed and 29 wounded in the alleged strike.

Iraq's former Deputy Prime Minister Baha Al-Araji suggested on Twitter that Israel was behind the suspected airstrike.

"We believe they are weapons we were holding onto for a neighbouring state and they were targeted by an oppressive colonial state on the basis of a treasonous Iraqi act," he wrote, according to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

Read more: Did Israeli long-range drones bomb Iran-linked targets in Iraq?

Israel has been blamed for recent strikes against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias in the country, which could mark a shift in its focus from sites occupied by Iran-backed militias in Syria.

On 19 July, an alleged airstrike hit the Al-Shuhadaa base near Amerli in north-central Iraq and on 28 July another alleged strike hit Camp Ashraf, 80 kilometres from the Iran-Iraq border.

An analysis published by The New Arab at the time posited the possible use of Israeli long-range drones in the attacks.

It is not clear whether the suspension of licences for foreign military aircraft includes those for coalition fighter jets taking part in the war against IS, which has not officially been concluded despite group's defeat.

"Any planes moving in violation [of this decision] will immediately be dealt with as enemy planes by air defences", the Iraqi Joint Operations Command statement said, adding that a full investigation would now take place into the Al-Saqr incident.

Alaa Al-Qaisi, an expert on Iraqi affairs, told The New Arab's sister Arabic-language publication: "Iraq has given an open licence to the international coalition, which consists of a number of countries, to take part in combat operations in Iraq. It has also given a licence to Russia in 2016 and to Iran before that." 

"Iraq currently doesn’t have the means or capacity to enforce its sovereignty. It doesn’t have a detection or early warning system and has depended on the US in this regard for years," he doubted that Iraq would be able to enforce its new decision.

The statement also noted that storing weapons without permission from the state, as the militia had done, was "unauthorised" and said that weapons depots and camps belonging to the army, police and Popular Mobilisation Forces would be moved out of major cities by the end of August.

The Al-Saqr weapons depot, which was formerly a US military base, had been occupied by the "Sayed al-Shuhadaa Brigade", a militia supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

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