Iran’s proxies in Iraq threaten US with more sophisticated weapons
BAGHDAD – The United States grapples with a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq after militias specializing in the exploitation of more sophisticated weapons, including armed drones, hit some of America’s most sensitive during attacks that escaped American defenses.
At least three times in the past two months, these militias have used small drones loaded with explosives that dive and crash into their targets in nightly attacks on Iraqi bases, including those used by the CIA and the United States. US special operations units, according to US officials.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top US commander in the Middle East, said last month that drones pose a serious threat and the military is rushing to find ways to combat them.
Iran – weakened by years of harsh economic sanctions – is using its proxy militias in Iraq to step up pressure on the United States and other world powers to negotiate a relaxation of these sanctions as part of a relaunch of the nuclear deal from 2015. Iraqi and US officials say Iran designed the drone attacks to minimize casualties that could prompt the US to retaliate.
Michael P. Mulroy, a former CIA officer and senior Middle East politician at the Pentagon, said that with the technology provided by the Iranian force Quds – the foreign branch of the Iranian security apparatus – drones are rapidly becoming more sophisticated at a relatively low level. Cost.
“Drones are a big problem, one of the biggest threats our troops face there,” he said.
A senior Iraqi national security official said drones were a challenge, but were tools, not the heart of the problem.
“It is a pressure tactic,” said the official, who asked not to be identified so that he could speak freely about Iran. “Iran is economically suffocating. The more he suffers, the more these attacks multiply, ”he added. “The problem is the conflict between the United States and Iran.”
Iran has used proxy militias in Iraq since 2003 to influence Iraqi policy and threaten the United States outside its borders.
Since late 2019, Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias have carried out more than 300 attacks against US interests, killing four Americans and around 25 others, mostly Iraqis, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published in April. Over the past year, a proliferation of previously unknown armed groups has emerged, with some claiming responsibility for rocket attacks against US targets.
The increased accuracy of drone strikes this year marks an escalation from the more common Katyusha rocket attacks that U.S. officials have viewed more as harassment. These attacks, launched from mobile launchers, targeted the United States Embassy in the Green Zone of Baghdad and military bases where some 2,500 American troops and thousands of American military contractors function.
In contrast, some US analysts say that activists are now targeting specific sites, or even aircraft hangars, where MQ-9 mower contractor-operated drones and turbo-prop surveillance planes are stationed with the aim of disrupting or crippling the US reconnaissance capability essential to threat surveillance in Iraq.
The United States has used the Reapers for its most sensitive strikes, including the murder of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander Major General Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi government official. and an Iraqi militia leader, in Baghdad in January 2020.
While the United States has installed defenses to counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems at installations in Iraq, armed drones fly too low to be detected by these defenses, officials said.
Shortly before midnight on April 14, a drone strike targeted a CIA hangar inside the Erbil airport complex in northern Iraq, according to three US officials familiar with the matter.
No one was injured in the attack, but it alarmed Pentagon and White House officials due to the covert nature of the setup and the sophistication of the strike, details of which were previously reported by the Washington Post.
A similar drone attack in the early morning hours of May 8 on the sprawling Ayn al-Asad airbase in western Anbar province – where the United States also operates Reaper drones – also raised concerns among US commanders on changing militia tactics. The attack left no casualties but damaged an aircraft hangar, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq.
Three days later, another drone struck just after midnight on an airfield in Harir, north of Erbil, which is used by the military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command. The explosives-laden drone crashed, causing no injuries or damage, coalition officials said, but fueled growing concerns.
While many attacks on US targets almost immediately generate militia claims of responsibility, the more complex and longer-range drone strikes have not, a further indication that Iran is behind them. , according to US officials and independent analysts.
“There is growing evidence that Iran is trying to have or has created special groups, new ones that are capable of carrying out very sophisticated attacks against American interests,” said Hamdi Malik, associate member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy which focuses on Shiite militias.
US forces in Iraq operate under strict Iraqi guidelines focused on combating the Islamic State or ISIS. Iraq is demanding that the US-led coalition obtain permission to run surveillance drones, which focus on parts of Iraq where there are still pockets of ISIS and generally puts all the south of the country, a stronghold of militia, out of reach.
There have been no US forces or diplomats based south of Baghdad since the United States closed its consulate in the city of Basra three years ago, citing Iranian threats.
“It’s a very effective way to attack,” said Michael Pregent, a senior researcher at the Hudson Institute and a former US intelligence officer deployed to Iraq. “This allows these attacks to be launched from areas outside of the US military presence in Iraq.”
Mr Pregent said satellite surveillance, by its nature, could only be used to cover other parts of Iraq for limited periods of time and could not track moving targets.
In addition to attacks on US targets in Iraq, an armed drone reportedly launched from southern Iraq struck the Saudi royal palace in Riyadh in January. Saudi Arabia and Iran are longtime rivals for regional power and influence and during groundbreaking talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis demanded that Iran end these attacks, according to Iraqi officials.
During a visit to northeastern Syria last month, General McKenzie, the region’s top U.S. commander, said military officials were developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between drones and their operators, to strengthen radar sensors to identify imminent threats more quickly and to find effective means. to lower the plane.
In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some of the drone remains were partially recovered, and preliminary scans indicated that they were either made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran, according to the three. US officials familiar with the incidents.
These drones are bigger than commercially available quadcopters – small, four-rotor helicopters – which the Islamic State used in the Battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reapers, which have a wingspan of 66 feet. Military analysts say they are carrying between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.
Iraqi officials and US analysts say that while cash-strapped Iran has cut funding to major Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting up smaller, more specialized proxies still operating within larger militias but not under their direct command.
US officials say these specialized units have likely been given the politically sensitive mission of carrying out the new drone strikes.
Iraqi security commanders say the groups with new names are fronts for traditional and powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran has used the new groups to try to cover up, in talks with the Iraqi government, its responsibility for strikes targeting US interests, which often end up killing Iraqis.
Iraqi security official said members of smaller specialist groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and Lebanon as well as Iran by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – which oversees proxy militias in the Middle-East.
US and Iraqi officials and analysts trace the increased unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the US murder of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.
“Because Iranian control over its militias fragmented after the murders of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, competition has increased between these groups,” said Mr. Malik, analyst at the Washington Institute.
Jane Arraf reported on Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reports.