Did Israeli F-35 Stealth Fighters Really Bomb Iraq?
Here is what we know, so far.by Michael Peck
Israel’s F-35 stealth fighters are positively supernatural: here, there and everywhere. In 2018, the Israeli Air Force claimed its new F-35s had attacked Iranian targets in Syria. Also in 2018, Arab press made dubious claims that IAF F-35s had flown over Iran.
Now comes reports that Israeli F-35s have attacked Iranian targets in Iraq, according to Arab media.
Western diplomatic sources allegedly the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that on July 19, “Tel Aviv carried out an airstrike earlier this month against an Iranian rockets depot northeast of Baghdad.”
El Arabiya television reported that the strike hit Iranian ballistic missiles being transported in refrigerated food trucks. Several Hezbollah and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members were reportedly killed,
A second strike targeted another Iranian base, according to Asharq Al-Awsat. “The Ashraf base in Iraq, a former base used by the Iranian opposition People’s Mujahedin of Iran, was targeted by an air raid,” according to the newspaper. “The base lies 80 kilometers from the border with Iran and 40 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. The sources revealed that the strikes targeted Iranian ‘advisors’ and a ballistic missile shipment that had recently arrived from Iran to Iraq.”Report Advertisement
Compounding the mystery were initial reports that unidentified drones conducted the attacks.
Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, told U.S. publication Breaking Defense that Israel probably did attack Iranian targets in Iraq. “Apparently, Israel is really operating in Iraq,” he said. “It is sensible that Israel will not claim responsibility for such an attack as it may complicate things for the U.S. Without referring to the specific attack I can say that the F-35 is the ideal aircraft for such an attack.”Report Advertisement
As so often in the Middle East, especially in the shadow war between Israel and Iran, it’s hard to know exactly what happened. The tale changes with whoever tells it, and why they’re telling it. Still, we can make some educated guesses.
First and foremost is the fact that Israel has refused to accept being surrounded by Iranian missile bases on its borders. The Israeli Air Force has turned Syria into a shooting gallery, with hundred of strikes hitting Iranian convoys crossing Syria to supply arms to Hezbollah into Lebanon, as well as Iranian and Hezbollah bases in Syria itself.
“We can – and we intend to – make it as difficult as possible and inflict a price tag that the Iranians aren’t willing to pay,” an Israeli military official told me during an interview in Jerusalem last February. Which suggests that Israel would shy away from striking Iranian facilities in Iraq, especially now that the U.S. doesn’t have a major military presence there anymore.
An Israeli strike in Iran would be risky even with F-35s, given distance to the target – about a thousand miles from Tel Aviv to Tehran — Iranian air defenses (including Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles) and potential Iranian retaliation. But Tel Aviv to Baghdad is less than 600 miles. Israeli aircraft could fly over Syria or even Jordan (as they did in their 1981 attack that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor).
Weakened by years of warfare and a dysfunctional government and military, Iraqi defenses wouldn’t pose much of a threat. Iraq would be a fairly safe test as the Israeli Air Force absorbs its F-35Is.
None of which is conclusive proof that Israeli F-35s struck Iraq. But as in any murder mystery, the prime suspect has motive, opportunity and capability.Report Advertisement
Iran Admits a Revolutionary Guard Commander Killed in an “Israeli Attack” in Iraq on July 19
Photograph displayed at the funeral of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer Abu Alfazl Sarabian. (Iran press)
A senior Iranian commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al Qods Brigade, Abu Alfazl Sarabian, was killed in Iraq in an attack by “Israel and the United States” on July 19, 2019, according to the Iranian Broadcasting’s Young Journalists Club online publication. A funeral service was held in Tehran before Sarabian’s body was returned for burial in his hometown Kermanshah.1
The attack was carried out on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force (Hashd al-Shaab) in Armeli in the Salah a-Din governorate of Iraq north of Baghdad. The Iraqi sources said Sarabian was killed as a result of an explosion in a storage area for solid fuel for missiles.
In the photograph, Abu Alfazl Sarabian is holding an Austrian sniper rifle, the Steyr HS 50 that was supplied to Iran by Austria. Subsequently, Iran copied the model, renamed it the Sayyad AM-50 and provided it to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad organizations in Gaza. Syria produces its own version, the Golan S-01.2
The Iranian announcement of the death of its IRGC officer in the “Israeli-American” attack at an Iraqi base may raise regional tensions. The attack would be another stage in the campaign Israel is conducting against Iranian presence in Syria, in general, and along the Israel-Syria border, in particular. Israel is accused of assassinating Mashur Zidan, a senior Hizbullah official near Damascus on July 27, 2019. Zidan, like a former associate (now dead), Samir Kuntar, was tasked with recruiting and planning for attacks along Israel’s border on the Golan Heights. Israel’s campaign is also aimed at Iran’s logistical bases in Iraq away from the front, including a missile storage facility north of Baghdad, and against the Ashraf base, formerly used by the opposition organization Mujahedin al Haq.
Asharq al-Awsat, a pan-Arab publication based in London, quoted unnamed sources saying, “The strikes targeted Iranian ‘advisors’ and a ballistic missile shipment that had recently arrived from Iran to Iraq.”3 The “attack was carried out by an Israeli F-35 fighter jet,” they added.
Iran and Hizbullah continue to plan for a possible conflict with Israel that could erupt in the shadow of the crisis between Iran and the United States and Britain. Iran is attempting to find alternative storage sites – maybe in Iraq — for its missiles, rockets, and other materiel it transfers to Syria in light of the repeated attacks on its Syrian depots. Now, according to foreign reports, even the infrastructure Iran is attempting to establish in Iraq is vulnerable. It is not clear how Iran will react to the actions against its interests in Iraq.
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With Missiles More Accurate Than Hezbollah’s, Iran Entrenchment in Iraq Threatens Israel
Reports Tuesday credited Israel with earlier attacks on Iranian targets in Iraq ■ Israeli intelligence says Iran is providing Iraqi militias with missiles more accurate than Hezbollah’s, capable of hitting anywhere in Israel Yaniv Kubovich
Iran’s military entrenchment in Iraq poses a threat to Israel, defense officials say.
Iran began bolstering its presence in Iraq after Israel stepped up attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and Syrian President Bashar Assad regained control over most of his country. Israel’s efforts to thwart Iran’s attempts to bring sophisticated weaponry and air and naval forces into Syria led Tehran to revert to its old method of relying on local militias, which is harder for Israel to counter.
Israel’s intelligence assessment for 2019 states that despite Iran’s difficulties in entrenching itself militarily in Syria, it hasn’t given up on its ambition “to create regional hegemony for itself via alliances spreading from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.” Nevertheless, the assessment continued: “Iran has been forced to recalculate the way it tries to realize its regional vision. This recalculation led Iran to realize that the domestic and international situation in Iraq created better opportunities for it to prepare its regional plans.”
Israeli defense officials say Iran has shifted the bulk of its deployment of missile systems outside the country to Iraq, which is harder for Israel to attack than Syria was. The latest airstrikes on Iraq, which the London-based paper Asharq Al-Awsat attributed to Israel on Tuesday, were aimed at such missile systems.
According to Israeli intelligence, Iran is currently providing Iraqi militias with missiles that have ranges of 200 to 700 kilometers and are capable of hitting anywhere in Israel. These missiles are more accurate than the ones in Hezbollah’s arsenal. Iran may use them either to hit Israel directly from northern Iraq or to transfer them as needed to Syria and Lebanon.
Iran’s regional deployment is largely based on missiles because it doesn’t think its aerial and ground forces are capable of standing up to Western armies. Consequently, it has focused on improving both the range and accuracy of its missiles in recent years.
According to media reports, the latest airstrikes attributed to Israel took place in northwestern Iraq. They targeted weapons storehouses and missiles at bases where Iranian advisers were present.
Two weeks ago, the media reported a drone strike in Iraq that killed members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Foreign media reports said the target that time was a base where missiles destined for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq were being stored.
Foreign media have also reported several other attacks on Iraq, some of which were attributed to Israel.
So far, however, Israel has kept mum about all these attacks, aside from a video clip published by the ruling Likud party that showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an old speech to the United Nations vowing to act against Iran anywhere, including in Iraq. This clip, reposted three days after the attack on the base where Iranian forces were killed, could be seen as a hint that Israel was behind that strike.
But Israel has much less freedom of action in Iraq than in Syria, because while it has the capability to strike Iraq, doing so could create problems with the United States administration.
U.S. President Donald Trump wants calm restored to Iraq as quickly as possible, and any airstrike on the country undermines its stability and deters foreign investors and donor states. Consequently, Iran is the one country whose trade with Iran has been exempted de facto from U.S. sanctions.
U.S. spy planes have recently intensified operations along the Iraq-Syria border. This may be a way of signaling to Israel that America will take care of preventing the smuggling of sophisticated arms to Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Alternatively, America may have started taking action against Iran’s entrenchment in Iraq for fear that Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq will attack U.S. forces.
Shi’ite militias are the second cornerstone of Iran’s military entrenchment in Iraq, alongside its missile deployments. Economic problems and growing religious extremism in many Arab countries have enabled Iran to recruit volunteers for the militias it supports. And these militias let it carry out military operations without taking responsibility for them.
Iran had ties with militias in Iraq even back in the 1980s and 1990s. But these militias have become more powerful militarily as technology improved and as their political power grew.
Iran provides them with military, economic, logistical and religious support. In exchange, they will help Iran if it asks them – including, according to a senior Israeli defense official, by coming to the Lebanese or Syrian borders to participate in fighting against Israel. The Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, which is part of the Israel Defense Forces, also said in recent reports that Israel must take these militias into account in future fighting.
The strongest Iranian-backed militia is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the model Iran seeks to replicate in other countries. Since 2014, it has also supported a network of Shi’ite militias in Iraq. These militias, now known as the Popular Mobilization Units, are second only to Hezbollah in terms of their importance to Iran. They united under the Popular Mobilization Units umbrella at the urging of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iranian-born cleric who is the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shi’ites.
The strongest militia in the PMU is the Badr Organization, which has both a political and a military wing. The latter is thought to have some 50,000 fighters. The Badr Organization is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former transportation minister who is close to Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. The organization also fought alongside America against the Islamic State.
Another important element of the PMU is Kata’ib Hezbollah. It was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi Shi’ite trained in Iran to establish an Iraqi organization resembling the Quds Force. He is very close to Soleimani and has said in the past that he’s willing to fight alongside Iran.
The PMU also includes Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which has perpetrated attacks on American forces in Iraq. Its leaders are very close to senior Hezbollah officials, and Hezbollah helps fund it. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also gets millions of dollars each month from Iran.