Washington: Israel has carried out at least one strike against a weapons depot in Iraq, The New York Times reported Thursday.
There have been a series of blasts in Iraq over the past month at training camps and arms depots used by the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, which are mainly composed of pro-Iranian militias.
Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria, but an expansion of the campaign to Iraq - where the Jewish state struck the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 - would risk damaging Washington’s relations with Baghdad.
A senior Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel bombed a base north of Baghdad last month, while two American officials said the Jewish state carried out multiple strikes in Iraq in recent days, the Times reported.
The Hashed’s deputy commander Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, whose virulent anti-Americanism as a militia leader earned him a US terror blacklisting, has been unequivocal in blaming Washington for the blasts.
But Faleh al-Fayyadh, the official head of the Hashed, has walked back the accusations, saying investigations were ongoing.
“Preliminary investigations” found the incidents were “an external, premeditated act,” he said.
“The investigations will continue until the responsible entities are accurately identified to be able to take the appropriate stances.”
Netanyahu hints at Israeli involvement
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted on Thursday of possible Israeli involvement in attacks against Iranian-linked targets in Iraq.
A series of blasts in the past few weeks have hit weapon depots and bases belonging to paramilitary groups in Iraq, many of them backed by Israel’s regional foe Iran. The groups blamed the United States and Israel for the blasts on Wednesday.
In an interview with Russian-language Israeli television Channel 9, broadcast on Thursday, Netanyahu was asked whether Israel would operate against Iranian targets in Iraq if needed.
He said: “We are operating - not just if needed, we are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.” Netanyahu did not directly name Iraq as one of those areas.
Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria, some of them against Iranian targets, to prevent Tehran from establishing a permanent military presence there and to stop advanced weapons reaching its proxies in the area.
Israeli officials suggested recently they viewed Iraq, whose main ally is Iran, as more of a threat than in recent years, but have not directly commented on the recent blasts at Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) sites in Iraq.
On Wednesday, the PMF, the umbrella grouping of Iraq’s mostly Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups, said the United States had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region accompanying U.S. forces and carry out missions on Iraqi territory.
The Pentagon denied involvement. The U.S.-led coalition, in Iraq to fight remnants of Daesh, dismissed the statement.
As tensions between Washington and Tehran increase, Iraq finds itself caught between neighbouring Iran, whose regional influence has grown in recent years, and the United States.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi last week ordered all ammunition dumps belonging to the armed forces or paramilitary groups to be moved outside of cities.
He also cancelled all special flight permissions for Iraqi and foreign aircraft, meaning that sorties, including by the U.S.-led coalition operating against Daesh militants, must be cleared in advance by the prime minister.