Did pro-Iran militias endanger a church in attacks in Iraq -analysis

The attack was carried out from next to a church, according to a video posted online that showed a rocket fired at night next to a building with a large illuminated cross.

A BUILDING in Erbil, Iraq damaged in missile attacks earlier this month. (photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS)
A BUILDING in Erbil, Iraq damaged in missile attacks earlier this month.

Rockets of unidentified origin were fired at the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq Sunday from an area near Bartella, a Christian town in Nineveh plains.

Reports say that the rockets targeted the Khabat district northwest of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region.

Officials said that “the attack which claimed neither casualties nor material damage originated from Bartella town in Nineveh province.”

The perpetrators are unknown but previous attacks have originated from areas controlled by pro-Iran militias in Iraq.  

The attack, according to video posted online, showed a rocket fired at night next to a building with a large illuminated cross.

Several videos showed the area the rockets impacted, and also the areas they were fired from.

This is one of numerous attacks previously carried out in recent years by pro-Iran militias in Iraq.

The militias have targeted US forces as well as the airport in Erbil, an oil refinery and a Turkish base near Bashiqa.

The rocket attacks are increasing. This is the first attack that has appeared to use a church and Christian community for cover, thus increasing tension in the Christian community in Iraq. Christians have suffered greatly in Iraq, for several decades, from extremists linked to groups such as ISIS, and now also sometimes from pro-Iranian militias or groups linked to them.

Many Christians live in the Kurdistan autonomous region, and many have fled there to areas like Ainkawa in Erbil. However, in Nineveh plains near Mosul the Christian minority must live near areas controlled by pro-Iran militias.  

The attack Sunday night, according to reports, occurred in a town adjoining Bartella called Karemlesh (Karmlesh) where there is a shrine for Saint Barbara called Mart Barbara Monastery.

This area was once home to thousands of mostly Chaldean Christians, and other Christian groups. When ISIS was expelled from these areas in 2016 by the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga, these areas were turned over to various groups, including Christian armed units linked to the NPU, (Nineveh Plains Protection Unit) who were paid salaries by the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units).

The PMU is a large umbrella group called Hashd al-Shaabi that contains numerous units, many of which are pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias. One of these militias is called the Liwa al-Shebek, made up of an Iraqi minority group.

This unit is Hashd Brigade 30, and it has checkpoints around this area from Bartella along the roads heading toward Qaraqosh and then on to the Tigris river.

Iraq was supposed to rein in these groups but the groups continue to operate. Iran can therefore move rocket launchers, 122mm or 107mm rockets hidden in lorries or flatbed “Bongo” trucks and similar vehicles.

The rockets can be easily positioned and then fired, sometimes by remote control, while the perpetrators disappear into the night.

This has been the Iranian method in Iraq since 2019 when Iran ordered Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah and other militias to attack US targets.

The US eventually responded, killing IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in January 2020. Since then, other militias such as Harakat Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have played a role in pressuring the US in Iraq.

The militias turned their sights toward Erbil in September 2020, when they began to target US forces there from Nineveh plains.

They set up rocket launchers near Bartella in 2020 and fired at Erbil airport. In 2021 they shifted to using drones. Iran and its militias even targeted a CIA hangar at Erbil airport in April 2020, according to The Washington Post.

Later, Iran spread rumors it would attack the Harir base in the Kurdistan region, or the site of the new US consulate near Erbil.

Attacks came in early 2020 and then that July and continued into December when Iran’s militias shifted their focus to a Turkish base near Bashiqa.

That base is sometimes called the Zilikan base in Sheikhan. All of these areas are within range of the militias based near Mosul.

Iran upped its attacks on March 13 using ballistic missiles to target areas around Erbil. It then spread rumors it was targeting Israel with these attacks, alleging an Israeli presence in Iraq. The overall context though was that Iran wants the US and Turkey out of northern Iraq.

The US has increasingly been using Erbil since it left bases in other parts of Iraq in 2020.

The details of the Iranian-backed attacks are clear. Evidence of previous attacks has been found just a kilometer from PMU checkpoints, and rocket launch pads have been found in areas where the pro-Iran militias run security. Iran even takes credit from time to time or releases information to its media bragging about the attacks.  

The attack from near the church included six rockets that targeted the Khabat area northwest of Erbil. This is the site of a massive oil refinery near the village of Kawergosk. Rockets fell here in early April as well.

Kawergosk refinery is one of the biggest in the Kurdistan region. It was previously known because of wastewater runoff to the Great Zab river; but now it may be an Iranian target.

Reports said in March that Iran may have struck Erbil using ballistic missiles to derail energy talks that relate to energy exports to Turkey from northern Iraq’s Kurdish region. That means the targeting of the refinery could be part of Iran’s economic war.

Iran used drones and missiles to attack Abqaiq refinery in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, and it has targeted refineries using drones from Kataib Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis have struck the Shayban field and other Aramco facilities.

Iran could be mobilizing the militias in Nineveh to strike at oil and energy supplies in the Kurdistan region. It could also be a threatening message to Erbil.  

Turkey has bases in northern Iraq as part of a campaign it says is against “terrorists.” Turkey claims to be fighting the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Iraq.

However, the Bashiqa Turkish base was once used to train fighters against ISIS. Iranian militias want less Turkish presence in Iraq and have targeted Turkish forces as well. Overall, Iran wants Turkey, the US and other pro-western groups out of Iraq so it can control the country.

Other groups in Iraq, including minority groups aligned with the PMU, may agree with that policy at times, or be forced to work with the militias.