US officials have confirmed that Israel was behind recent airstrikes on alleged weapons depots in Iraq, which were ostensibly being used by Iran to transfer arms to Syria.
Senior US officials yesterday told the New York Times that Israel has carried out "several strikes [in Iraq] in recent days", the most recent of which took place on Monday near the Balad Airbase, north of Iraqi capital Baghdad.
The US-based newspaper also quoted a "senior Middle Eastern intelligence official" who said that Israel had struck a separate base north of Baghdad on 19 July. The official claimed that the base was being used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) to transfer weapons to Syria, where Iranian-backed groups are engaged in the country's protracted civil war.
He added that a "cargo of guided missiles with a range of 125 miles" was destroyed during the attack.
The same official also revealed that the 19 July strike was launched from "within Iraq", raising questions as to how Israeli aircraft were based in a country with which they currently have no formal diplomatic relations.
The US officials' comments confirm weeks of speculation that Israel was responsible for the multiple attacks on Iraqi targets which have taken place in recent months.
In the past three months, four attacks on weapons depots have taken place. Three of these bases were being used by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation of Shia paramilitary groups technically under the authority of the Iraqi Security Forces, though many operate semi-autonomously.
Meanwhile the fourth was being used by Iraq's federal police, the New York Times explained.
On Wednesday the PMF blamed the US and Israel for attacking its bases in Iraq, saying in a statement that the US had allowed four Israeli drones to enter Iraq. The statement added that the group has "accurate information" which proves the US brought the Israeli drones into Iraqi territory to work as part of the US fleet stationed in the country.
The US Pentagon, however, strenuously denied its involvement in the affair, dismissing the PMF's statement entirely.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further added to speculation of US-Israeli involvement yesterday, saying that he had given the armed forces a "free hand" to deal with the alleged Iranian threat.
In an interview with Israel's Russian-language outlet Channel 9, Netanyahu was asked whether Israel would operate against Iranian targets in Iraq if needed. The prime minister replied: "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."
The attacks represent a new front for Israel, having previously focused on targeting Iranian positions in Syria. Though Israel has maintained an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war and often remained silent in the face of air strike accusations, in January then Chief of Staff of the Israeli army Gadi Eisenkot admitted Israel had in fact struck Syria "thousands of times".
Israel's military intelligence threatened in February to expand its operations to Iraq, claiming "Iran may use Iraq as a launching pad to target Israel" after its positions in Syria were destroyed. This, Israel claimed, "would call for a response from Tel Aviv". US President Donald Trump also expressed similar ideas, telling American news station CBS that he would keep US personnel in Iraq to "keep an eye" on Iran.
Former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi slammed these suggestions, stressing that "Iraqi sovereignty must be respected [since] we are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation". Iraq's President Barham Salih echoed this sentiment, calling on the US not to pursue its own policy priorities because "we live here".