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Has Iraq failed to control drone movement?

Iraq is facing a new security challenge with its lack of control of drones, which have been increasingly used in the past months.
A picture taken on January 13, 2020, during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group, shows US army drones at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. - Iran last week launched a wave of missiles at the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Arbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, both hosting US and other foreign troops, in an operation it dubbed a response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the h

Iraqi security sources reported July 30 that unidentified drones had been seen near Hit district in Anbar province in the west of the country. The sources said that “the fixed wing drones are the property of the Islamic State [IS].”

It is likely that IS is using these drones. In the Mosul battles, IS often used drones to strike Iraqi security forces by loading the drones with missiles that it would then drop on Iraqi military complexes.

However, IS apparently is not the only nongovernmental group using drones in Iraq. On July 23, a drone carrying a 2-kilogram (4.4-pound) missile was found in Jadriyah in central Baghdad. The party owning it was not revealed, which raises concerns in Baghdad, which is already struggling with security and political crises.

The Iraqi authorities did not disclose any information about the drone that was found in a presidential area only a few hundred meters from the governmental Green Zone. It landed at a complex adjacent to the house of President Barham Salih. Hussein Allawi, national security professor at Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad, said he considered the incident “a huge breach of Iraqi national security.”

On the same day, an unidentified drone landed in Seneia town in Beiji district in Salahuddin province. Seneia is a small town in the middle of the desert linking the province to Anbar province. IS regularly uses this area for training and other terrorist activities.

Spokesman for the Joint Operations Command in Iraq Tahseen al-Khafaji told Al-Monitor, “We forbid any plane from flying in Iraqi airspace unless it coordinates with the Joint Operations Command and receives its approval.”

He added, “The Joint Operations Command then notifies the air defense command, and any plane flying in the Iraqi skies without the government’s approval is considered an enemy plane. We are arresting anyone using drones without approval. IS has often resorted to drones, and we can still stop them in their tracks remotely. Sometimes we manage to down them.”

Iraq does not have a law against the use of drones. Drones are mostly imported and often bought as photography tools and then sold illegally, out of sight of the authorities and without approval.

Most of the nongovernmental drones in Iraq today are not military aircraft like the ones used to assassinate Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani. They are used to take photos and are developed locally for other purposes.

Hakem al-Zamili, head of the Security and Defense Committee in the former Iraqi parliament, said July 26, “The drones in Iraq are used to smuggle drugs and might be used for assassinations.”

Zamili insinuated that political parties and armed factions use the drones in smuggling operations, and an Iraqi senior intelligence source in the Ministry of Interior told Al-Monitor about the mechanism involved for using the drones.

“The drones are used by gangs and tribes as well as IS. Some tribes carrying out the smuggling operations in southern Iraq use the drones for reconnaissance before any operation,” the source said.

He added, “Tribes use the drones solely for reconnaissance and gangs smuggling drugs use the drones as a means of transportation. IS uses them for reconnaissance for the entry and exit of its members into and out of Iraq and Syria.”

Fadel Abu Raghif, security commentator close to the Iraqi intelligence, told Al-Monitor, “Drones are used extensively in Iraq. The negative usage is due to a lack of control of the borders in the past and the entry of drones through official outlets.”

He added, “Another reason is that the Iraqi security intelligence is not using its techniques to deactivate the drones. Gangs use them to smuggle drugs, because they are a safer way than risking the lives of their members. However, drones fly at close range and are thus easy for security forces to control.”

Iraqi security forces have arrested journalists and photographers for taking photos with drones; they justified these arrests because no approval had been given to use the drones.

On June 30, the Iraqi Al-Sumaria channel reported that “shepherds in Baiji district carried the debris of a drone. Then another drone pursued and killed them. The debris belonged to an aircraft of the international coalition.”

For a country like Iraq, which does not have an air defense system, drones can find their way easily into Iraqi skies, and many videos have documented unidentified drones.

In early April, Osbat al-Thaeerin, a group that seems close to Iran, published a video of a drone hovering over the US Embassy in Baghdad in an unprecedented incident. On Dec. 7, 2019, an unidentified drone launched a missile at the house of leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr.

Experts expect the armed factions close to Iran to adopt new techniques to target US interests in Iraq, i.e., with drones — as was the case in Yemen that successfully accomplished goals the Houthis could not obtain through ground strikes.

In the future, Iraq is likely to witness a significant increase in the use of drones for political or tribal purposes, and anti-US armed factions in Iraq might use them, too. This will make it harder for Iraqi forces to determine which party the unidentified drones belong to.

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