Claims that the US struck Iranian-backed militias were at the heart of the rumors.
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Iraqi security forces re-open BaghdadÕs Sinak bridge, after it was shut down by protesters, in Baghdad, Iraq February 12, 2020
On Monday evening rumors of an airstrike began to circulate in Iraq. As is normal with these kinds of rumors, the more details people provide the less likely they are to have happened. For instance pro-Iranian social media channels in Iraq claimed that “explosions” at a place called Jurf al-Sakhar had been heard. Soon they were asserting that US F-16s had attacked pro-Iranian groups. By Tuesday morning the US had denied any role in an airstrike and it [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.] or some other incident had fueled the rumors.
Claims that the US struck Iranian-backed militias were at the heart of the rumors. This isn’t that far-fetched since the US did carry out airstrikes in Decemeber 2019 and March 2020 against pro-Iranian groups in Iraq. However those took place after attacks by militias on US forces in Iraq. Jurf al-Sakhar in Babil governorate is known to have links to military and munitions warehouses and complexes. Some of these are linked to the Popular Mobilization Units, a vast array of pro-Iranian militias that receive government salaries. The US has targeted these groups not only with air strikes but also sanctions. Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais Khazali, Abu Fadak, Falih al-Fayyadh and other members of this network have been hit with sanctions.
These groups run extrajudicial prisons and have warehouses full of weapons, including Iranian-supplied 107mm rockets and some say they have ballistic missiles. With tensions high in Iraq and militias concerned that their allies in Syria are being targeted in airstrikes, it's natural that they are always looking up in the sky for possible airstrikes. In July and August these groups accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes on their sites in Iraq. Reports indicate that Jurd al-Sakhar has an old missile production facility from the Saddam era. It was difficult to verify if it is still in existence.
The alleged explosions in the last hour of January 18 led to a mass of rumors across Iraq. Everyone is on edge. “Evidence” of the attacks included claims that it took place as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was tweeting. Someone posted an image of a US KC-135 tanker plane flying around. Nafiseh Kohnavard of BBC noted that pro-Iran Telegram channels were accusing Israel of the airstrike. But US Central Command clarified they were unaware of any such air activity. “Explosions reported earlier today about 40 miles outside of Baghdad in the town of Jurf Sakhar were not the result of US military action,” CENTCOM spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban said.
It appears now that the rumors were mostly exaggerated but they illustrate how tense Iraq is. An attack on a logistic convoy that provides vehicles and equipment to US and anti-ISIS coalition forces was also reported last night. Iranian-backed groups have carried out numerous rocket attacks on the US in Iraq over the last two years. They have stopped the attacks as they await the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden. This is likely on orders from Tehran, which wants to start off on the right foot with Washington again, before turning up the heat in Iraq. Officially, pro-Iran groups in Iraq want US forces expelled.
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