Iranian-backed militias in Iraq may have used drones against Saudi

This comes in the context of the attack on six oil tankers between May 12 and June 13 in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of a US drone on June 20 that almost led to war.

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June 30, 2019 01:12
3 minute read.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq may have used drones against Saudi

Pieces of the American drone that were shot down by Iran in the Straits of Hormuz. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A May 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities may have been carried out from Iraq, not Yemen as originally suspected, increasing the spotlight on Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and threats to Saudi Arabia.

A Wall Street Journal report on Friday reported that “US officials have concluded that drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in May were launched from Iraq.” The attack on May 14 followed US warnings on May 5 about Iranian threats, which set in motion the last month and a half of tensions between the two countries. The US has warned Iran not to attack its forces or US allies and said that “unrelenting force” would be the US response to any attacks.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq in the wake of US National Security Advisor John Bolton warning about Iran’s threats. According to reports, he told Iraqi officials about Iran’s threats in early May. It now appears those threats were not only concrete but they may have materialized on May 14. In addition, on May 19 a rocket landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad. The US has blamed Iran and its proxies for that attack. From June 17 to 19, more rockets fell near US forces and facilities in Camp Taji, Mosul and Basra. Mortars were fired at Balad airbase in Iraq.

This comes in the context of the attack on six oil tankers between May 12 and June 13 in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of a US drone on June 20 that almost led to war. We now know that Iran fired at another US drone and that a third drone was shot down over Yemen earlier in June.

The drone attack on Saudi Arabia on May 14 was assumed to come from Yemen because Houthi rebels have drones and have carried out numerous attacks on Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia. But the report at The Wall Street Journal says that US officials familiar with the intelligence say the attacks “originated in southern Iraq.” That would “implicate Iran-backed militias” there. This could include any number of militias, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah or Asaib Ahl al-Haq or Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, or smaller groups. Many of these are also official paramilitaries incorporated into the government in 2018.

Tensions are rising in Iraq after the rocket attacks and after protesters stormed the Bahrain Embassy. Bahrain hosted a US-backed meeting to support Palestinians. But comments by the foreign minister in Bahrain and accusations by Iran that it and Saudi Arabia had “betrayed” the region led to protests. The protesters have accused the Gulf states of being weak and becoming tools of the US and “Zionists.”

The May 14 attack raises questions. It allegedly took place at Saudi Aramco’s pumping station No. 8 at Al-Duadmi in Saudi Arabia. This is more than 200 km. west of Riyadh. It is also around 500 km. from the Iraqi border and 800 km. from the Yemen border. That is a long distance for a drone to fly. It means whoever carried out the attack had sophisticated technology and planned it for some time. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have fired ballistic missiles at Riyadh in the past, but drones flying that distance are an escalation. Furthermore, the attack raises questions about why the drone flight wasn’t picked up on radar, or why it wasn’t confronted by Saudi Arabia’s air defense, which includes US military technology and Patriot batteries.

The conclusion that the drone operated from Iraq will lead to more questions about tensions in Iraq between Iran and the US and US allies. Iraq’s president has warned the US against using Iraq to “watch” Iran, which US President Donald Trump said the US planned to do in December. In addition, Iraqi leaders, including leaders of the Shi’ite paramilitaries, say they do not want a conflict in Iraq. The country is recovering from the war on ISIS and still faces ISIS threats. Some of the Shi’ite paramilitaries have called for US forces to leave Iraq. The US has labeled some of those groups terrorists and also labeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which supports the paramilitary militias, a terrorist organization.


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