Pro-Iran factions up the ante in Iraq with drone strike
Armed pro-Iran Iraqi groups striving to oust all foreign forces from their country Wednesday upped the stakes with a drone attack, a technique favoured elsewhere in the Middle East, experts say.
On the second day of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, in the autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq, the quiet of the day was broken by the news of two simultaneous strikes.
A drone "loaded with TNT," according to Kurdish authorities, crashed into the headquarters of the anti-Islamic State coalition led by the United States at the Erbil airport. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) away in Bashiqa, a rocket killed a Turkish soldier.
"Suicide drones are particularly useful in these types of hits as they can avoid counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems such as C-RAM," the system deployed by the Americans to protect their troops in Erbil and Baghdad, Hamdi Malik, associate fellow at the Washington Institute, told AFP.
After dozens of rocket attacks – largely launched from the backs of pick-up trucks that then disappear into the countryside – the drone strike marks "an escalation and a sign that Iran-backed militias will use various weapons to attack their targets," said Malik.
For analyst Ihsan al-Shammari, "this new attack is a sign of open conflict."
"The last time there was an attack on Erbil, we thought it was a warning and that it would stop there."
Two months ago, rockets killed a foreign contractor working for the US-led coalition and an Iraqi civilian in Erbil.
At the same time, another pro-Iran group "claimed to have attacked a Turkish military base in Iraq," Malik said, adding "the attack was not confirmed."
Then, as on Wednesday night, a shadowy group posted messages on pro-Iran Telegram channels hailing the attack.
Experts say this is a front for pro-Iran entities that are integrated into regular military forces as part of the Hashd al-Shaabi – a state-sponsored pro-Iran paramilitary coalition – but that nonetheless carry out attacks outside the framework of the Hashd.
The onus for the strikes cannot be placed on any one faction. But recently, a Hashd commander threatened the Turks, who over the past 25 years have set up around a dozen bases across Kurdistan, with authorities in Erbil and Baghdad powerless to stop them.
While Wednesday's attack was the first suicide drone strike in Iraq, according to one US senior defense official, this method is tried and tested for Iran-aligned groups in the region.
"The Iranian-backed militias have drones now with a 15-foot wingspan. It's an Iranian-made CAS-04, which we've already seen weaponised by the Houthis against Saudi," the official said, referring to Yemeni rebels aligned with Iran, the regional rival of Saudi Arabia.
In January, drones packed with explosives were intercepted over the royal palace in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
"We know the attack was launched ... out of southern Iraq," added the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pro-Iran groups "now have the capacity for a rocket-assisted launch. The range is 1,200-1,500 kilometers if they add fuel tanks to it ... These can be pre-programmed with a GPS destination or they can be flown from the ground," the official said.
To avoid being tracked and intercepted, "they can even be loaded onto a ship from Basra" at the southern tip of Iraq, and brought closer to targets in the Gulf.
Wednesday's strikes, however, were closer to home, in a country that has for years been a battleground for influence between rivals Iran and the United States.
In the final weeks of US president Donald Trump's term in office early this year, the main pro-Iran Iraqi factions were at odds over strategy.
Some pressed for a show of force, while others said attacks, such as targeting the American embassy in Baghdad with rocket fire, "violated Iran's orders to de-escalate until the transition in US administration takes place," said Malik.
But all the factions could get behind Wednesday's strikes as being in line with a demand by Shia Muslim lawmakers to expel foreign troops from Iraq in January 2020, after US-Iran tensions played out again on its soil.
The arch-foes came to the brink of conflict last year when an American drone strike killed Iranian top general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
The call in parliament to expel foreign forces, however, went beyond the US to include Turkish troops, whose bases in Iraq's mountainous north threaten the Hashd's control of the territory.