Did Israeli long-range drones bomb Iran-linked targets in Iraq?

Did Israeli long-range drones bomb Iran-linked targets in Iraq?
Israel reportedly late last month launched strikes on Iranian targets deep inside Iraq, a move which could shift power dynamics and trigger new tensions in the fraught region.
5 min read
02 August, 2019
Israel reportedly launched strikes on Iranian targets in Iraq last month [Getty]
Last month, two military bases that have been used by Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) were apparently targeted by air strikes by unidentified aircraft.

The first attack seems to have occurred on July 19, at al-Shuhadaa base near Amerli in the Saladin province north of Baghdad. An armed drone reportedly targeted a ballistic missile shipment from Iran said to have been concealed in trucks used to transport refrigerated food. The strikes reportedly killed one Iraqi and injured two Iranians.

The second attack reportedly occurred on July 28, against Camp Ashraf located around 80 km from the Iranian border and 40 km north-east of Baghdad.

The mysterious strikes came amid increasing tension between Washington and Tehran in the Gulf region, provoking an extensive debate over who may have carried out such attacks and what kind of aircraft may have been involved.

Given the fear that any miscalculation might trigger a destructive war in the region, the US swiftly denied any possible involvement in the issue.

The Iranian link

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the reported strikes, several (PMUs) members and Iranian sources have accused Israel of standing behind the attacks. Later on, the Iraqi government attributed the first incident to a minor internal fire adding only ambiguity and confusion to the issue.

Several Israeli officials including the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, head of IDF Intelligence Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen all recently warned Iraq against allowing Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers to operate in the country or to use it as a launch pad for attacks against other states.

Iran is known to transfer ballistic missiles to its regional allies such as Syria's Assad, Houthi armed militia in Yemen, and Lebanon's Hezbollah. In its effort to turn Iraq into a forward military base against its adversaries, Tehran has been stepping up its efforts to move ballistic missiles to its proxies there. Last year, a report quoted seven Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources confirming that Tehran has delivered short range ballistic missiles to Shia militias in Iraq.
Iran is very well known to transfer ballistic missiles to its regional allies such as Syria's Assad, Houthi armed militia in Yemen, and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The Fateh 110, Zelzal and Zolfaqar can cover a distance that ranges between 200 and 700 km. This makes Israel in range of these missiles if deployed in bases in the Western part of Iraq.


While this shows that Israel may have a good motive to strike Iranian missile targets inside Iraq, these attacks raise questions about Israeli capabilities. When it comes to drone systems, Israel possesses a loitering munition (LM) system developed by its Aerospace Industries (IAI) that is believed to be capable of executing such long-range attacks.

One such system is the unmanned drone system called "Harop". It is not equipped with any separate missiles or warheads but rather the drone itself resembles a flying missile. It can fly for 6 hours and has an operational range of 1000 km.

Al-Shuhada military base which reportedly targeted on July 19 is around 900 km from Israel. This means that Tel-aviv can - theoretically at least - execute such mission. However, soon after the second alleged attack on Camp Ashraf, contradictory reports emerged claiming that both attacks were carried out by an Israeli F-35. The F-35 is the most advanced fifth-generation multi-role stealth jet-fighter in the world. Israel has agreed to purchase at least 50 F-35s from the US.

Excluding the US, Israel is the first country to receive the latest state of the art aircraft. Currently, it possesses 16 F-35s and the rest are expected to be delivered in batches until 2024.

On July 9, just 10 days before the first alleged attack, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned Iran that his country's F-35s "can reach anywhere in the Middle East, including Iran, and of course also Syria".

One might suggest that such statements can give the claims of an Israeli involvement in the strikes against Iranian targets in Iraq more credibility. However, there are few points that should be taken into consideration before rushing into such conclusions.

First, given the distance between the allegedly targeted bases in Iraq near the Iranian borders and Israel, there is a debate whether the F-35 can cover this range.

While some might argue that they can cover that distance, it is unlikely that the F-35s can do so without the need to refuel. Second, taking into consideration that the F-35s will be tasked to achieve complicated mission and take down highly valuable targets or neutralise strategic assets, a limited strike against those two PMU bases seems not to be worth the risks involved.

Third, if we are going to speak of the participation of F-35s in such attacks- which is highly questionable at best- it will be even more sensible to assume that they were Americans and not Israelis.

After all, although Iranian missiles with the hands of the Shia militias in Iraq is a major threat, Israel's priority remains Lebanon and Syria with strikes being executed regularly there against IRGC bases and activities. The US meanwhile has more reason to conduct covert operations against Iranian targets especially after the downing of its drone in the Gulf.

The Iraqi airspace is in the US CENTCOM area of control and Washington is fully capable of carrying such strikes and employing the F-35s from its military bases in the Gulf in much easier and less risky missions.

Unless more details emerge on the possible participation of F-35s, it more rational to assume that reports of Israeli involvement are greatly exaggerated.

Ali Bakeer is an Ankara based political analyst/researcher. He holds a PhD in political science and international relations. His interests include Middle East politics with a particular focus on Iran, GCC countries and Turkey.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer