Iran-backed militia walks back accusation that Israel, US behind Iraq strikes

Head of Popular Mobilization Forces says his deputy was voicing his own opinion in blaming Jerusalem and DC for recent attacks on its bases

In this photo from August 12, 2019, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)
In this photo from August 12, 2019, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The head of Iraq’s paramilitary Shiite forces, supported by Iran, appeared Thursday to walk back a statement made by his deputy, who blamed Israeli drones and said the US was responsible for a series of attacks on bases run by the militia.

Faleh al-Fayyadh said that the Wednesday statement by his deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, didn’t represent the view of the mainly Shiite paramilitary group known as Popular Mobilization Forces — or that of the Iraqi government.

Al-Fayyadh’s statement alleged the attacks on the bases over the past weeks “were the result of an act organized by a foreign side,” without naming that side.

The statement highlighted divisions within the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is mostly run by the deputy, al-Muhandis, a military commander known for his anti-American sentiments.

The rare statement by al-Muhandis had said the group had accurate information showing the US brought in four Israeli drones this year to work as part of the US fleet in Iraq and target militia positions in Iraq.

“We announce that the United States is ultimately responsible for what happened and we will hold it responsible for what will happen as of today. We have no choice but to defend ourselves and our bases with the weapons at our disposal,” said the statement.

The conflicting statements came after an Iraqi government report obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday said a massive explosion at a munitions depot run by an Iranian-backed militia near Baghdad last week was caused by a drone strike. The report outlined the conclusions of a fact-finding committee ordered by the government to investigate the August 12 explosion at the al-Saqr military base.

It said the blast was caused by a drone strike that sparked a huge fire and ruled out earlier suggestions that it was caused by an electrical short circuit or faulty storage of munitions that allowed them to overheat in sweltering summer temperatures.

Explosions at an arms depot of a Shiite militia group in Iraq, August 20, 2019 (video screenshot)

The blast at the al-Saqr, or “Falcon,” base killed one civilian, wounded 28 and damaged nearby homes, echoing across Baghdad. The base houses a weapons depot for the Iraqi federal police and the mainly Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. The state-sanctioned militias, most of which receive backing from Iran, have fought alongside Iraq’s regular armed forces against the Islamic State group.

The report did not say who the drone belonged to.

Al-Saqr was among a string of explosions that hit militia bases and munitions depots over the past several weeks. The deadliest, a July 19 blast, was blamed on a drone that hit a base in Amirli, northern Iraq, killing two Iranians and causing a huge fire. The most recent explosion came on Tuesday night, at a base north of Baghdad.

Speculation among media and officials as to who is behind the explosions has ranged among a number of possible perpetrators, including Israel, the United States or rival Iraqi factions.

If Israel did carry out the bombings, it would be an expansion of its campaign against Iran’s spreading influence in the region. Israel has struck Iranian bases in neighboring Syria on numerous occasions, but it is not known to have done so in Iraq.

Asked about the mounting speculation that Israel was striking in Iraq during a visit to Ukraine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said: “Iran has no immunity, anywhere … We will act — and currently are acting — against them, wherever it is necessary.”

An American official said the US has no evidence or credible intelligence that Israel was behind the two most recent blasts — on Tuesday or on August 12. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the issue.

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