An explosion at a warehouse in Baghdad this week led to rumors and questions. Could it be the heat of summer, or was it a mysterious drone some said they have footage of? Or was it an air strike, as recent satellite imagery might show?
Like many things in the heat of the summer in Baghdad, there may never be a clear answer - and the answer that may be accurate may not be the one that the authorities and others necessarily want to hear.
An explosion rocked an area south of Baghdad on August 12, destroying a warehouse at a military base used by the Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Sha'abi. One person was killed and dozens injured. Reports indicated that various members of the PMF use the area, including some closely linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Initial reports said that the area had been bombed. A "warplane" or "drone" was rumored to have been seen.
But authorities quickly said that the explosion at the camp known as Saqr or Falcon was due to heat and badly-stored munitions. This has happened in the past in Iraq, especially in 2017 and 2018. Some who looked at the history of Camp Falcon and Rasheed Airbase recall that in 2006, the area was struck by a mortar, and a huge explosion resulted. Some accounts in Iraq said that the explosion on August 12 was caused by "foreign powers." But members of Parliament in Baghdad chimed in on August 13, asserting that weapons should not be stored in such quantities near civilian areas. The prime minister said the necessary steps would be taken to stop more explosions.
However, the ImageSat International images released on August 14 allege that it is probable the "blast was caused by an air strike." This complicates an already complex picture. In recent weeks, other explosions have rocked areas used by the PMF. A July 19 explosion at Shohada camp in the Salahuddin province also harmed an area used by the PMF. There was a Turkmen unit present. A mysterious drone was seen, according to local station Kurdistan24. The US-led coalition even tweeted that "Coalition Forces were not involved." Other reports claimed members of Hezbollah and the Iran-based IRGC were casualties in the attack.
A July 28 explosion at Camp Ashraf northeast of Baghdad also destroyed a warehouse. A Twitter account named @AuroraIntel even posted satellite images of the Camp Ashraf and a second site at Amerli north of Baghdad closer to Kirkuk, which show damage from explosions. TRT in Turkey alleges that Israel has "opened a new front against Iran," and links this to the mysterious explosions.
The explosions, if seen as merely a public safety issue, can encourage the government to secure the bases and munitions used by the PMF, as part of a way of bringing the forces under federal control. The Hashd al-Shaabi were supposed to be fully incorporated into the security forces, but the presence of so many munitions warehouses, with rockets and other munitions, can pose a danger to locals.
A larger problem is the reports in foreign media, including The Wall Street Journal, that alleged Israel was behind the strikes. As far back as August 2018, Reuters reported that Iran was basing missiles in Iraq. In the last six months, such reports have increased. May reports by Jonathan Spyer noted that evidence was growing that Iran had based missiles in Iraq. In mid-June, rockets were fired near US bases and Iran was blamed.
That leaves three major incidents in the last month with a large question mark over them: July 19, July 28 and August 12. Each incident also appears larger than the last. July 19 looked like an explosion in a small area, while July 28 appeared to be just one warehouse out of three nearby that were left intact. The August 12 explosion appears to have leveled a large multi-room warehouse as well as damaging things nearby. That is what the satellite images show at least.
It is a hot summer in Iraq. The explosions have added to the heat and tensions that may be growing. Officials want the munitions away from densely populated areas, and some want the Hashd al-Shaabi to be under closer government control. But others prefer to fan the flames of claims that foreign powers are targeting Iraq, or at least targeting Iranian-backed groups in the buffer country between Israel and Iran, its flanking, bitter-enemy neighbors.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.