SNAPSHOT: Recent explosions across military bases in Iraq to escalate tensions with geopolitical rivals Israel and US

SNAPSHOT: Recent explosions across military bases in Iraq to escalate tensions with geopolitical rivals Israel and US

OVERVIEW 

  • On 26 and 27 July 2020, explosions took place at two military bases near the capital, Baghdad. 
  • Several explosions and a fire occurred on Sunday (26 July) at a weapons depot in the al-Saqr military base located in southern Baghdad. The Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC) attributed the blasts to ‘high temperatures and poor storage’.
  • On Monday (27 July) two explosions occurred around 2300 local time at Majid al-Tamimi air base, located in Tikrit in the northern province of Salahudin. It is unclear what was affected by the blasts; however, sources including provincial police officer Mohammed al-Bazi indicated they occurred at ammunition depots under the authority of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The PMF is an Iraqi state sponsored umbrella organisation made up of around 40 predominantly Shia groups, many of which are considered to be pro-Iranian.
  • Against this backdrop, there is a realistic probability that pro-Iran groups will seek to retaliate. Retaliatory activity is likely to target US diplomatic and military interests and could also affect businesses in the region with links to Israel and the US, as pro-Iran groups may attribute the explosions to covert foreign-backed activity.   

ANALYSIS  

  • The explosion on 26 July at the al-Saqr military base, which is situated 80km north of Baghdad, follows a similar incident at the same facility in August 2019 when a fire set off explosions that killed one and injured 29 people.
  • A government investigation was carried out, and a document later obtained by The Associated Press indicated that a drone strike had caused the 2019 explosion. In the weeks leading up to this event, a number of explosions also occurred at military bases and ammunition depots, primarily across northern Baghdad. These incidents were also identified as drone strikes in government documents. The government never officially identified the origin of the drones. However, it is highly likely the suspicious activity was due to a covert operation carried out by the US and/or Israel, with many pro-Iranian militia groups believing as such.
  • The August 2019 incident will be a key reference point in fuelling suspicion among pro-Iran groups over the involvement of foreign actors in the explosions on 26 July and 27 July. The close proximity in time between the two incidents and the apparent targeting of PMF ammunition depots on each occasion could serve to reinforce this belief.
  • Speculation regarding foreign actors will be further exacerbated by a spate of suspicious incidents in Iran that have taken place over the past two months which have targeted key infrastructure or sites linked to Iran’s nuclear programme, notably the Nantanz facility which is critical to the country’s nuclear efforts.
  • Iran has not officially recognised these incidents as attacks carried out covertly by geopolitical rivals such as the US and Israel. However, the involvement by foreign actors in the Iranian incidents is highly likely, and Tehran is likely in the process of evaluating retaliation activities. The incident in Baghdad is therefore likely to further elevate tensions between Iraq and Iran on one hand and key rivals, particularly the US and Israel, on the other.
  • The explosions come amid a backdrop of escalating tensions between Baghdad and Washington since a US drone strike in January killed General Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
  • It also comes as Iranian proxies in Iraq have gained strength and influence in the political sphere in recent months. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who replaced Adil Abdul-Mahdi in May 2020 following months of violent anti-government protests, holds limited influence over voting blocs in parliament. His position was facilitated via negotiations and compromise with Iran-backed proxies who now wield considerable control in the ruling government.
  • Iranian proxies have also been increasingly projecting power, underlined by a mounting pressure campaign in Baghdad to remove US forces from the country which has included frequent rocket attacks targeting US military and diplomatic interests.Iranian rivals such as the US and Israel will likely perceive these developments as an escalating threat. Covert activity carried out by these states across Iran and Iraq in either a cyber or ground-operative capacity is possible given the current geo-political climate. Such activity is likely to have the aim of curbing Iran’s aggression and efforts to influence the Iraqi political sphere. 

FORECAST 

  • Businesses in the region with affiliations to the US are at an increased risk of sustaining collateral damage given the high likelihood of retaliatory attacks carried out by pro-Iranian militias against US military, diplomatic, or commercial interests in the short-medium term outlook.
  • Those with facilities in close proximity to US interests should exercise heightened caution due a collateral risk to the safety of their staff and physical assets.
  • Similar incidents to the 26 and 27 July explosions are likely in the coming days and weeks and could occur at another military base or potentially also at strategic sites such as medical, military, fuel facilities or factories across Iraq.
  • Operations managers should review their security threat assessments for facilities located near such sites.