FILE PHOTO: Iraqi security forces gather at a checkpoint into the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

By Timour Azhari and Laila Bassam


 – Iran-backed Shi’ite armed groups in Iraq have ramped up rocket and missile attacks on Israel in recent weeks, raising concerns in Washington and among some Iranian allies of potential Israeli retaliation and regional escalation should they draw blood.

Though the attacks, often from hundreds of miles (kms) away, are not seen by western officials and Israeli experts as posing the same level of threat to Israel as point-blank strikes by Hamas and Hezbollah, they have increased in number and sophistication.

At least two have hit their targets and many have had to be shot down by U.S. and Israeli defences, according to U.S officials and public statements by the Israeli military.

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New weaponry such as cruise missiles have been regularly used since May and are harder for air defences to destroy.

“Overall, the intensity and the types of weapons systems used have steeply escalated,” said Mike Knights, a fellow at the U.S.-based Washington institute for Near East Policy, where he tracks the attacks. “It complicates the Israeli task and is an increased financial cost,” he said.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen people, including sources in Iraqi armed groups and other factions in Iran‘s network of regional allies known as the Axis of Resistance, alongside U.S. and other regional officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to give candid assessments of a sensitive issue.

They said the attacks by Iraqi factions, including Kataib Hezbollah and Nujaba, were a cause for rising concern for Washington and also viewed with unease among some in Iran and its powerful Axis ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has carefully calibrated its own engagements with Israel to prevent all-out regional conflict.

“They could get the Axis involved in something it does not currently want,” a senior figure in the Axis of Resistance said, describing the view among pro-Iran groups on condition he not be identified.

Iran and Hezbollah, the most organised members of the network, have in the past struggled to rein in Iraqi factions.

Hussein al-Mousawi, a spokesperson for Nujaba, one of the main armed Shi’ite factions in Iraq participating in strikes on Israel, told Reuters the strikes were a natural evolution of the role of Iraqi groups and aimed to increase the cost of the war in Gaza. They intend to strike from anywhere, for as long as is necessary.

“The operations carried out by the Resistance are not bound by temporal or spatial boundaries,” Mousawi said. “We, as a resistance, do not fear the consequences as long as we are in the right and we represent the popular and official will.”

The Iraqi government, which carefully balances its alliances with both Washington and Tehran, does not officially approve of the strikes but has been unable or unwilling to stop them.

Critics say this shows the limits of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s power in a coalition government that includes Iran-backed armed groups, and may undermine efforts to rebrand Iraq as stable and open for business.

Iraq does not recognise Israel and a 2022 law punishes those trying to normalise ties with death or life in prison. Israel views Iraq as an Iranian vassal state and main corridor for weapons from Iran to other armed groups including Hezbollah.

The Israeli and Iraqi governments did not respond to requests for comment. The U.S. State Department declined to comment.

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ESCALATING THREAT

The Iraqi groups trace their roots to the fight against U.S. troops in Iraq after the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. They have since grown their regional reach, mirroring the evolution of other Iranian allies such as the Houthis in Yemen who have launched strikes on shipping in the Red Sea.

Iraqi groups joined the Syrian civil war in support of Iran‘s ally President Bashar al-Assad, gaining a foothold in territory near the border with Israel. A shadowy Iraqi group claimed drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2021 and 2022.

The attacks by Iraqi groups on Israel are launched from areas south of Baghdad and in the Iraqi-Syrian border area where Iran-backed factions hold sway, according to Knights.

To get from Iraq to Israel, projectiles must fly over Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia.

While Iran has been keen to have Iraqi factions contribute to the regional battle against Israel, their propensity to miscalculate was a constant cause for concern, the senior figure in the Axis said.

He noted that the Iraqi groups had already unwittingly caused a major regional escalation in January, when they killed three U.S. troops in a drone attack on a U.S. outpost in Jordan.

That attack – which crossed multiple U.S. and regional red lines by hitting a neighbouring Arab state and killing Americans – led to a deadly campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

So serious was the risk of escalation then, that the commander of Iran‘s elite Quds Force travelled to Baghdad to tell the factions to dial down their attacks, Iranian and Iraqi sources told Reuters at the time.

Attacks on U.S. forces stopped. There was a brief lull. Then, they turned their attention to Israel.

A senior Iranian official who asked not to be identified to discuss sensitive matters said this shift in focus was part of a plan to keep the pressure on Israel over the Gaza war.

A U.S. defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the attacks on Israel jeopardized the stability of Iraq and the region by increasing the risk of military action, including potentially by the U.S. and Israel.

“The sophistication and frequency of these attacks highlight the escalating threat posed by these groups” the official said.

“The U.S. military will not hesitate to act to protect our forces and support the defence of our allies.”

‘FREE HAND’

Iraq has posed a threat to Israel before – notoriously during the 1991 Gulf War when Saddam fired barrages of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa.

At the time, Washington prevailed upon Israel not to retaliate to avoid an escalation that could undermine a U.S.-led coalition, including Arab armies, which had been pulled together to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

After Hamas militants launched their attack on Israel on Oct. 7 last year precipitating the war in Gaza, Iraqi Shi’ite armed factions, like other pro-Iranian groups, pledged to carry out attacks in solidarity with the Palestinians.

They initially targeted mainly U.S. forces based in Iraq and Syria. But on Nov. 2 they claimed their first ever attack on Israel.

A handful of other claimed attacks on Israel followed in the next few months, including four in February, even after the groups had publicly halted attacks on U.S. forces, according to public claims of responsibility by the Iran-backed groups.

The number of claimed attacks shot up to 17 in March, and doubled again in May, averaging more than one a day, though U.S. officials and the source in the pro-Iranian Axis said they are not certain all the claimed attacks were genuine.

Reuters was not able to determine exactly how many attacks have been launched nor how many hit their intended target.

The attacks are frequently accompanied by video released on social media purporting to show the projectiles being fired from remote Iraqi desert sites as militants shout the names of holy figures revered mainly by Shi’ites. Reuters was not able to verify the date or location of the videos.

While Israel rarely comments on its operations in neighbouring states, it is thought to have struck pro-Iran groups in Iraq before, in 2019, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had given the military “a free hand” to act “to thwart Iran‘s plans”.

Asked to provide information on launches by Iran-backed factions in Iraq, the Israeli military declined to comment.

Israeli authorities have publicly confirmed at least two impacts on the coastal city of Eilat that Israeli media said came from Iraq, on a school in November and a naval base in April.

Additionally, the military has announced many interceptions of projectiles coming “from the east”, widely seen as a reference to Iraq. No injuries or deaths have been reported as a result of the attacks.

Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli air force general who formerly headed military intelligence, said he would rate the level of threat the attacks pose to Israel as “one step down” from Hezbollah or the Houthis.

The U.S. defence official said projectiles fired from Iraq had been intercepted by U.S. forces operating “from various locations in the Middle East, as part of our commitment to Israel’s defence and regional security.”

“The frequency of these actions has increased in response to the rising number of threats,” the official said.


(Reporting by Timour AzhariEditing by Peter Graff)


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