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Strikes near Iraqi border mark widening regional battle against Iran

Strikes widely attributed to Israel have hit an Iranian convoy near the Iraqi border after it crossed out of the country.
BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images

BAGHDAD — Iraq marks the geographical center of a larger fight that may be heating up again between Iran and its regional proxies on the one hand and the United States and Israel on the other.

There have been several recent attacks that remain unclaimed but that most observers attribute to Israel, both in Iran and near Iraq’s western border with Syria in territory under the de facto control of Iran-linked armed factions.

The attacks on the Syrian side of the border on Sunday night and Monday morning are believed to have targeted either an aid convoy from Iran to Lebanon or vehicles transporting weapons for Iran-linked armed factions. Some reports claim an officer from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was among those killed in the morning attack.

Armed factions consisting largely of Iraqi nationals but linked to Iran have for years crossed the border between Iraq and Syria largely at will, as fighters from the groups have told Al-Monitor in previous interviews.

Parts of Iraqi territory are widely considered to be under their control and not that of the state, including areas south of al-Qaim in the western Anbar province and the Sunni Arab area of Jurf al-Sakr, now officially known as Jurf al-Nasr, in the Babil province closer to the capital.

The latter was, according to locals Al-Monitor has spoken to who have not been allowed to return to their land, occupied by Iran-linked Shiite armed factions in 2014.

Late Sunday evening, a convoy of vehicles was targeted just across the border in eastern Syria a few hours after crossing in from Iraq.

“Yesterday, an Iranian convoy consisting of 25 trucks entered the city of Al-Qaim at 6:00 pm. It is unknown what they were transporting. At 10:20 pm, part of the convoy was bombed in Syrian territory,” a member of the local security forces in al-Qaim told Al-Monitor on Monday.

Another strike at the same location came Monday morning, reportedly leaving several non-Syrian nationals dead.

A source on the Iraqi side of the border told Al-Monitor that “the explosions were heard clearly” in Qaim. He said there did not seem to be any heightened tension in the city the next day as the similar targeting on the opposite side of the border had become “normal.”

Agence France Presse quoted the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday as stating that a “total of 10 people were killed in a series of drone strikes targeting pro-Iran factions in eastern Syria” between Sunday evening and Monday.

It added, “A commander in an Iran-backed group and two of his companions, all of them non-Syrian, were killed this morning after renewed drone strikes” and that the “commander's pickup truck was targeted while he was inspecting the site of the Sunday evening strike that destroyed a convoy of six refrigerated trucks transporting Iranian weapons.”

It is unclear whether and/or how many of these of these non-Syrians were Iraqis.

The IRGC have long trained and supported Iraqi militia factions, which recruit heavily from among Iraq’s impoverished southern regions.

Verifiable on-the-ground information regarding the Iraq-Syria border area is scarce, with access for the most part denied to international journalists.

Al-Monitor accompanied the Iraqi army during the 2017 operations to liberate the area from the Islamic State but has at times in the intervening years been denied access at the last checkpoint prior to the city of al-Qaim, despite receiving official authorization from the Joint Operations Command to report from the area.

One Iraq-based Al-Monitor source claimed in relation to the attack late Sunday evening that the attack destroyed "food" trucks.

“25 refrigerated trucks escorted by one SUV allegedly carrying food aid from Iran to Lebanon crossed the border at 22:00 hrs, seven of which were destroyed by UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle, i.e. drones],” the source said.

Questions sent to a spokesperson for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command had not been answered by the time of publication.

A tribal sheikh from a major tribe in the border area who is a close relative of a number of members of the local security forces told Al-Monitor that despite claims to the contrary, “the convoy did not use the official border crossing” but that little information was available on casualties and what exactly the vehicles had been transporting.

He added that local medical sources were unaware of whether any of those injured had been brought back across the border into Iraq for treatment, as has occurred in previous attacks on Iran-linked forces across the border.

The sheikh said some government medical facilities in al-Qaim had been “taken over” by Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in 2018 after the city was liberated from the Islamic State in late 2017.

He added that any fighters or vehicle drivers that were linked to parts of the IRGC-linked “muqawama” or resistance factions would have been treated in those facilities and not ones staffed by local doctors.

Iraq’s new government took office in late October over a year after elections and following a great deal of wrangling and political turmoil leading to the political faction that got the most votes entirely withdrawing from parliament last June. It is led by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. Sudani was the choice of the Coordination Framework political alliance, which is close to Iran.

Western powers have since watched warily as tensions between Israel and Iran creep upward.

On Jan. 18, the European Parliament voted in favor of a measure calling for the European Union to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization. EU foreign ministers a few days later instead chose to add more individual names to the bloc’s list of people sanctioned for human rights abuses.

Less than a week later, the PMU, part of the official Iraqi forces, commented in a statement on an uptick in violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, claiming that international bodies were not paying significant attention to human rights abuses by Israel.

“We condemn in the strongest terms these crimes committed by the Zionists against our brotherly Palestinian people,” the statement said, urging “the international community and humanitarian organizations” not to be “shamefully silent and turn a blind eye to the arrogance of the Zionist entity and its disregard for all values ​​and charter.”

Around midnight on Sunday, a local security source in Kirkuk sent Al-Monitor a photo of a drone that had crashed shortly before atop “a residential complex named Rawan City” in Kirkuk province.

The drone was a “French-operated, Israeli-made Elbit Skylark I LEX short-range reconnaissance UAV,” Al-Monitor was told by one source. Specialized social media accounts confirmed that it was made in Israel and provided further details.

Social media accounts linked to Iraqi “muqawama” factions implied that this incident was thus also linked to Israel, with one calling it a “French NATO drone” and saying, “This is the second time a “Zionist made drone has crashed over Iraq — one crashed over Mosul 2 months ago.”

The Kirkuk region remains disputed between the Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region and the central government. Since late 2017 it has been under the control of the central government.

Last year, Iran and Iran-linked militias carried out multiple attacks on Erbil and other areas of the Kurdistan Region. On March 13, a dozen ballistic missiles were shot at Erbil in an attack claimed by the IRGC. Iran claimed at that time that Erbil was hosting “Israeli spies,” though an investigation found no basis for these claims.

Iran has more recently accused Iranian Kurdish opposition parties with armed wings operating in exile in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq of  supporting protesters in Iran, allegedly with Israeli support.

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