25 July 2019



A drone attacked Iraqi Security Forces on Friday that were deployed 180 km. north of Baghdad, near the city of Tuz Khurmatu. Initially reported as an attack on Iranian-allied forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the mysterious drone incident is still being investigated, and it is not clear where it came from or who carried out the attack that left several wounded.
What we know is that something happened. The US-led anti-ISIS coalition put out a statement on July 19 saying they were aware of reports “of an attack against the Iranians and a Popular Mobilization Force unit in Salah a-Din [governorate]. Coalition Forces were not involved, and we have no further information at this time.” The coalition responded because of rumors circulating on social media and in Iraq seeking to blame the US for the incident.

The day of the drone incident was the same day that the US said it used electronic warfare to take down an Iranian drone that was harassing the USS Boxer near the Straits of Hormuz. In another incident on the same day, Iran raided a British-flagged oil tanker, so tensions were already high that day.

Different media have reported the incident. Kurdistan 24 wrote that “unidentified drone bombs Iran-allied militia in Iraq.” It said the incident occurred near Amerli, which is south of Tuz Khurmatu, and that the victims were from the “al-Shohada military camp of the Turkmen Brigades, part of the Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi militias.” This was according to Iraq’s Security Media Cell, Kurdistan 24 reported. Reports said that the drone “dropped grenades” and injured two people, but also said an ammunition depot was struck and one killed. The Hashd al-Shaabi are called the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and are a group of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries who were raised to fight ISIS, but who became part of the Iraqi security forces in 2018 and are now standardized military units.

Fox News wrote that an “anonymous senior official with the militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, said the attack resulted in two wounded Iranians and struck a base that houses advisers from Iran and Lebanon.” Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper based in London, wrote that Hezbollah and IRGC members were killed in the attack. Quoting a leader of local Iraqi tribes, it said that the base struck houses with “Iranian-made ballistic missiles.”

Al-Jarida, a Kuwaiti newspaper, said that a source informed them that the drone was launched from near the US base of Tanf in Syria and the source blamed Israel.

In a thread on Twitter, the user “Tom Cat,” who follows Iraqi security issues closely, wrote that there were no IRGC in the area, and that the camp targeted was a headquarters for Brigade 16 of the PMU. He wrote that it was possible the drone came from an ISIS hideout.

Iraq has ordered an investigation into the attack on Brigade 16, with PMU members initially alleging the drone attack might be a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

The tensions between the US and Iranian-backed groups in Iraq form a backdrop of the drone attack. The US has designated several powerful Iraqi militias as terrorist groups, and those groups are part of the PMU. The US even slapped sanctions on “Iraqi militia leaders” on July 19, the same day as the drone strike.

But Brigade 16, which is made up of local Turkmen mostly from the area of Tuz Khurmatu and is affiliated with the Badr Organization, is not part of these sanctions. Madi Taqi al-Amerli, former head of Brigade 52 and a member of Iraq’s parliament, wrote that the drone attack had targeted a headquarters that appeared linked to both Brigade 52 and 16. Brigade 52 is also a Turkmen unit linked to Badr from Salah a-Din governorate.

The picture that emerges of the attack is two competing narratives. In one, the unit that was targeted included IRGC members in the vicinity, and also members of Lebanese Hezbollah or Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah. One social media account claimed that six IRGC and Hezbollah members were killed and Iranian-supplied Fateh 110 missiles struck. Either way, that narrative says that the base was linked closely to Iran. This narrative blames foreign forces for the drone attack, usually blaming the US.

The second narrative is more prosaic and says that local Turkmen forces were injured, and that the attack was likely by an ISIS drone. Because of the tension between the US and Iran, particularly on Friday July 19, the drone incident takes on added weight.

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