US officials said Friday a series of recent explosions in Iraq may be due to the scorching summer weather and not Israeli airstrikes as widely reported.
Earlier in the day, the New York Times quoted two US officials saying Israel was behind “several strikes in recent days on munitions storehouses for Iranian-backed groups in Iraq.”
In a briefing with reporters, a pair of Trump administration officials pushed back on the report, saying the US could not confirm Israel was responsible for the August 22 explosion, Bloomberg reported.
The officials posited that rather than Israeli airstrikes, the blasts may have been caused by the “absolutely raging heat in Baghdad over the summer,” when temperatures regularly average around 110º fahrenheit.
They also said Iran was culpable for the explosions due to its transfer of weapons to militia groups in Iraq and accused the Islamic Republic of working to make the country a client state like Syria.
According to US officials, Israel was responsible for a July 19 attack that targeted a base belonging to Iranian-backed paramilitary forces in Amirli in the northern Salaheddin province, and killed two Iranians. The attack was followed by at least two other mysterious explosions at a munitions depot near Baghdad belonging to the militias.
It would be the first known Israeli airstrike in Iraq since 1981, when Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor being built by Saddam Hussein.
Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian targets in neighboring Syria, but an expansion of the campaign to Iraq would mark a significant escalation in its years-long campaign against Tehran’s military entrenchment across the region.
The mystery attacks have not been claimed by any side and have left Iraqi officials scrambling for a response, amid strong speculation that Israel may have been behind them. Earlier this week, the deputy head of the Iraqi Shiite militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, openly accused Israeli drones of carrying out the attacks, but ultimately blamed Washington and threatened strong retaliation for any future attack.
Iraq’s government, by contrast, has said it is investigating the attacks and has yet to determine who was behind them, warning against attempts to drag Iraq into any confrontation.
The fallout could directly affect the future of thousands of American troops in Iraq, providing ammunition and pretext for hard-line factions who want them to leave.
Significantly, a leading Shiite Muslim cleric followed by some Iraqi militant factions issued a public religious edict, or fatwa, on Friday that forbids the presence of US troops in Iraq following the strikes.
In his fatwa, Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri also urged Iraq’s armed forces to “resist and confront the [US] enemy,” a call that is likely to inflame tensions in Iraq.
Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki also weighed in, warning of a “strong response” if it is proven that Israel was behind the recent airstrikes in Iraq.
In statements issued by his office, he also said that if Israel continues to target Iraq, the country “will transform into a battle arena that drags in multiple countries, including Iran.”
The comments by al-Maliki, who was prime minister for eight years and now heads a Shiite bloc in parliament, follow fiery threats to the US made hours earlier by the powerful Hezbollah Brigades, an Iran-backed militia. In a statement, it held the US responsible for the strikes and said any new attacks will be met with a harsh response.
“Be sure that if the confrontation between us starts, it will only end with your removal from the region once and for all,” it said.
Two US officials said Israel carried out an attack on the Iranian weapons depot in July that killed two Iranian military commanders. The US officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
A senior official with the Shiite militias at the time told The Associated Press that the base housed advisers from Iran and Lebanon — a reference to the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah terror group. He said the attack targeted the headquarters of the advisers and a weapons depot, causing a huge explosion and fire.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other lawmakers have indicated the speculation of Israeli involvement was true.
“I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere,” he said during an interview with a Russian-language TV station on Thursday, accusing the Iranians of trying to establish bases “against us everywhere,” including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Asked whether that means Israel is operating in Iraq, Netanyahu said: “We act in many arenas against a country that desires to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart these plans of Iran.”