It was January 19 when a rather strong blast rocked one of the bases of the 52nd Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). That was the beginning of serial attacks on PMF positions. Afterwards, the former Ashraf camp and the Sayyid of Martyrs Battalions, or Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), in Baghdad’s Dora were targeted. And recently, an explosion hit an arms depot belonging to one of the groups affiliated with the PMF. The depot lies near Balad base 64 kilometres from Baghdad.
Then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicitly claimed responsibility for the attacks on PMF bases. He also stressed the need for such attacks to continue. Netanyahu’s comments made Iraqi officials, especially PMF commanders, break the silence and release more information on the attacks.
Deputy PMF Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a statement blamed the United States for the recent blasts at the PMF’s ammunition depots. He stressed that Washington seeks to violate Iraq’s sovereignty and attack PMF forces. He said he has precise and confirmed intelligence suggesting the Americans have brought four unmanned aerial vehicles into Iraq this year via the Azerbaijan Republic in order to work on the trend of conducting flights against Iraqi military bases. He also referred to other information, including maps and audio files, saying US drones have recently been gathering information on PMF bases rather than chasing ISIS terrorists, and have collected data on the PMF’s divisions as well as arms and ammunition depots.
Iraqi National Security Advisor and PMF chief Falih al-Fayyadh announced in a statement the following day that al-Muhandis’ comments did not reflect the PMF’s official stance, but he did not reject those comments, either. It seems the PMF’s official stance will be announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s office after his probe is complete. It goes without saying that a delay in the announcement of the details of the attacks and making plans to adopt deterrent moves will only result in an increase in threats against the PMF. The Iraqi Army and people’s security is closely intertwined with that of their popular forces, and the continuation of attacks on PMF bases will be a serious threat against different areas across Iraq. Conducting assaults against the positions of popular mobilization forces, who are now legally part of Iraq’s Armed Forces, amounts to targeting Iraq’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and security.
One of the reasons that prompt Iraqi authorities to drag their feet on unveiling the hidden dimensions of raids on PMF bases is Baghdad’s weakness in dealing with parties involved in the attacks. This precaution and patience has its root in Iraq’s weakness in political and military domains.
On the one hand, this political weakness can be attributed to the enforcement, to the letter, of orders and the power of decisions by the prime minister. Despite the recent order by Abdul Mahdi to bring the country’s airspace under full control and cancel all permits of flight in the Iraqi skies, still we saw another attack against PMF positions, a similar attack from a single command centre inside Iraq.
On the other hand, a lack of state-of-the-art equipment and air defence systems have weakened the Iraqi military, so much so that it cannot monitor the violation of the country’s airspace by Israeli drones and US military movements on Iraqi soil. Under such circumstances, it is clear that the US, with its 15 bases, is well able to have control over Iraq’s day-to-day affairs and achieve its objectives one after the other.
If we regard a weak air defence system with a limited ability to spot and hit targets as one of the major military weaknesses of Iraq, we should not forget that the challenges Baghdad is facing with regards to purchasing these systems have added to the problem. Iraq is unable to buy Russian-made air defence systems because Moscow itself along with the United States as the Israeli regime’s allies is not willing to sell the systems to Baghdad.
Even if the Abdul Mahdi government wants to purchase systems such as S-300 and S-400 from another country, it will face pressure and threats by Washington. The US reaction may even be stronger than the sanctions Washington slapped on its NATO ally Turkey over the purchase of the air defence systems. Iraq is also unlikely to import air defence systems via Iran due to Tehran’s strategic considerations, the high risk of transfer, the threat of Washington’s confrontations and even opposition from inside Iraq.
In any case, PMF forces should reciprocate and show its deterrent power in order to stop threats against its bases. Now that the US and the Israeli regime’s joint strategy is to deal a blow to Iran’s proxy troops, more attacks should be expected in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Under such circumstances, only the “threat against threat” strategy will work.
So, the PMF’ future moves may be planned based on the decisions made within the organization independently from the Iraqi government’s official reactions. The reason is that the Iraqi government does not favour confrontation with American troops and fears the consequences of threatening the interests of the United States in Iraq. However, the PMF’s calculations are different and it is expected to go into action independently.
Due to distance and the fact that PMF forces lack the necessary resources to launch similar air raids against the Israeli regime, they will focus on ground operations. If they adopt such an approach, they will be able to use the territories of the resistance front, especially the Syrian soil, to deal a direct blow. Israeli embassies in Iraq’s neighbouring countries can also be struck as indirect Israeli targets.
As for Iran’s backing or lack of backing for the PMF’s reciprocal measures, it should be noted that operations against PMF forces has been to harm Tehran’s interests and trigger objections over Iraq’s cooperation with Iran. It goes without saying that Iran will move to counter such conspiracies and call for support for the PMF. Nevertheless, one should wait and see how and at what level this support will be. Head of the Iraqi State of Law Alliance Nuri Maleki warned Israel that if Tel Aviv’s attacks continue, Iraq will turn into a battlefield where more than one country, including Iran, will be involved.
This warning can be analyzed in two ways. On the one hand, the remarks can be evaluated as being aimed at preparing the Iraqi public opinion for possible cooperation between Tehran and Baghdad on Iraqi soil. On the other hand, since these attacks were the first Israeli threats against Iraq following Operation Opera in 1981where Iraq’s nuclear installations were targeted in a bid to threaten Iran’s interests, the remark by Maleki could be seen as a hint to bring responsibility upon Iran toward the situation in Iraq and suggesting that Iran is expected to get involved in the current crisis. Of course, a more logical decision would be to take the necessary reciprocal actions without Iran getting directly involved as Iran’s engagement may lead to a standoff between the government and part of Iraqi people.