Kochavi’s explosive comments on Iraq – analysis

Iran wants to move precision-guided munitions, in the form of kits that attach to rockets, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi [L] with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett  (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi [L] with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett
Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Iraq.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said on Wednesday that Iran is exploiting Iraq’s current political crises to smuggle weapons to Syria. Six months after Iraqis reported that mysterious airstrikes had targeted munitions at Iranian-backed militia bases, it appears that Israel has finally hinted at a campaign not to allow the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force to entrench in Iraq through the smuggling of dangerous munitions.
The comments by Kochavi indicate an Israeli willingness to speak openly about the growing threat in Iraq. Iraq’s border with Iran has become a key conduit for weapons flowing through the Albukamal crossing. The crossing, closed for years due to the war on ISIS, was opened in late September of this year. Iran has built a base near it in Syria called the Imam Ali base. In August 2018 and December 4, 2019 reports at Reuters said Iran is moving missiles, including short and medium range ballistic missiles, to Iraq.
Beyond that, Iran wants to move precision-guided munitions, in the form of kits that attach to rockets, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Iran is moving drones and air defense to Syria’s T-4 base. This is Iran’s “road to the sea” or “land bridge” that goes through Iraq.
The Iranian presence in Iraq dates back to the period after the US invasion in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Saddam had threatened Israel in the 1990s with Scud missiles based in Anbar province in western Iraq. With Saddam gone, the Iranians initially focused on building up allied political parties. After the war on ISIS started these political parties and their armed militias formed a paramilitary army called the Popular Mobilization Units. This was incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces in 2017, eventually growing so large that it appears more influential and powerful than the Iraqi army. Although the PMU numbers may be up to 250,000 members, the numbers under arms at a given time are less.
The PMU is not a paramilitary unit in the traditional sense like the US National Guard. It is a group of Shi’ite militias made up of some fifty brigades. The largest group is called the Badr Organization, run by Hadi al-Amiri who is an Iraqi that fled Saddam’s regime and served with the IRGC in the 1980s. Another unit is Kata’ib Hezbollah, run by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an IRGC-linked terrorist who is accused of attacks in Kuwait in the 1980s. In addition there is Asaib Ahl-Haq, whose leader Qais Khazali and his brother were sanctioned by the US recently. Khazali went to Lebanon in December 2017 and threatened Israel. Kataib Hezbollah built a base near Albukamal. In 2018 an airstrike hit their base and they blamed the US and Israel.
Beginning in July of this year, the PMU reported at least four airstrikes between July and August against munitions warehouses. Some of these were close to the Iranian border in Iraq. One was near Baghdad. Another was near Balad air base. It came in the context of rising US-Iran tensions. The militias blamed Israel for the attacks but held the US responsible. Iraq’s Prime Minister also blamed Israel for the attacks in Iraq in September. The PMU militias allegedly fired rockets at bases housing US forces near Balad, Camp Taji and Assad base. Later when protests broke out in Iraq in October, Khazali and Amiri blamed Israel.
Iraq’s pro-Iranian politicians frequently blame Israel for incidents in Iraq because this is a typical Iranian talking point. In this worldview, Iraq’s PMU is part of the “axis of resistance,” and the various militias view themselves as similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel, however, remained tight-lipped about these claims. In August Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Ukraine and hinted at Israel widening its struggle against Iranian entrenchment in the region, saying Israel could hit anywhere in the region. “We will act, and currently are acting, against them, wherever it is necessary.” Additionally in August, Image Sat International published satellite images of the aftermath of an August 12 airstrike, concluding that the Shi’ite Iraqi militia munitions storage had been hit with an airstrike.
October and November in Iraq were dominated by protests. Then came the December US sanctions against Khazali, a militia leader. This was a game changer because it represented the US singling out a militia for suppressing protesters. It came at the same time as the US blamed pro-Iranian groups for rocket attacks on US forces. The Pentagon said it was taking seriously the attacks and they would not be tolerated.
Taken together, the role of Iraq in Iran’s supply route and entrenchment in the region is growing. Iran’s IRGC is exploiting the weakness of the Iraqi state to send weapons through its militia networks. It also stores the rockets in Iraq. This is a key conduit for Iran’s role in the region, and Iran appears to view Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as basically one country, interconnected with pro-Iranian groups. This was evidenced by an August airstrike Israel carried out against a killer drone team in southern Syria. The Hezbollah members were part of this IRGC network. Israel has also said the IRGC is behind rocket attacks in January, September and November from Syria toward Israel, and also a drone attack in February 2018 and a rocket salvo in May 2018. In many cases one can draw a clear line from the rocket fire near Damascus to the drone facilities at the T-4 airbase, and from there along a lonely desert road to Albukamal and into Iraq.
Iraq needs to find a new Prime Minister, but the larger problem in Iraq is that it is a divided society and Iran has exploited these divisions to build up an arsenal in Iraq. In many cases protesters have targeted the Iranian-backed militias, such as Badr and Asaib Ahl al-Haq party offices. The protesters, who are mostly Shi’ites, understand that Iran is exploiting their country. Similarly there are concerns that the tensions between Iran and Israel could spillover and affect US forces in Syria and Iraq. A US Defense Department Lead Inspector General report published in November noted that “suspected Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-aligned militia bases in Iraq in July and August elicited a rebuke from Iraqi parliamentarians and resulted in Iraqi government-imposed air restrictions.” In addition US CENTCOM assessed that Iranian-backed forces in Syria might target the US if they view the US as complicit in Israel’s actions.
The delicate balance in Iraq makes any indication of Israel’s role become a political football and could result in controversy for US forces. Iran views the US and Israel as allies and the militias tend to view the US and Israel as basically the same entity in their rhetoric. In the past these groups fought America. Khazali, for instance, was detained in Camp Cropper in 2007. Secretary of State in the US Mike Pompeo expressed support for Israel’s actions against Iran in Syria.
The problem that Kochavi sketched out is not only the issue of Iran’s entrenchment in Iraq. Iran is also continuing its rocket production and making advances, and Iran is challenging Gulf states. Iran is more active than in the past. The comments about Iraq and Syria appear to show that Israel has acknowledged Iran’s entrenchment in Iraq is a threat. Iran’s rockets are becoming more precise and long-range, Kochavi says. The precision was clear in the September attack Iran carried out against Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility.
Despite the explosive revelations about Iran’s role in Iraq, and the decision to spotlight Iran’s entrenchment there, it is not clear how Iran’s entrenchment will be reduced either in Syria or Iraq. Iran continues to transfer weapons and make threats. Although it is temporarily distracted by protests in Iraq and at home, as well as protests in Lebanon that have challenged Hezbollah’s grip on the country, the overall picture is that Iran continues to upgrade bases like Imam Ali in Albukamal and plot its next steps. Iran has key officers such as Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force involved in its regional planning and strategy.
Hajizadeh is not only involved in Syria but also Iraq and in threats to the Gulf. For instance in May he told Iraqi officials that the IRGC was ready to transfer technical experience to Iraq. IRGC’s advise on rocketry would increase the threat that those Iraqi forces, such as the PMU, possess.