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Under the guise of finding a missile pointed at an Iraqi base, muqawama militias are warning off coalition air forces.
Media www.rajawalisiber.com – On October 21, Shafaq News (a Kurdish-backed mainstream media outlet) announced that a missile was found by Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) brigade 52 in the vicinity of the Tuz Khurmatu military airfield, in a hamlet called Albu Sabah. (For context, brigade 52 is the Shiite Turkmen “Fawj Amerli” close to Kataib Hezbollah. Brigade 52 controls the so-called “Martyr’s Camp,” which is 10 miles from where the missile was found, and the camp is a key link in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) system of supplying Iraqi militias with drones and rockets).
The missile in question was an Iranian-made “358” surface-to-air missile system (Figure 3), a type that has previously been captured in Iranian arms shipments bound for Yemen (intercepted on November 25, 2019 and February 9, 2020), and thereafter publicly displayed and analyzed as of Iranian origin by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen. (On September 23, 2021, a similar ground-attack version of the 358 was used by Iran-backed militias in Idlib, Syria).
Interestingly, Shafaq News reported that the PMF brigade 52 claimed the missile was “directed at” the airfield. This could be a laughably clumsy attempt at disinformation: consider, one of the PMF units closest to IRGC-QF announces that they found an Iranian-made missile pointing at an Iraqi Army and PMF camp. Alternately, the muqawama may be trying to lay the groundwork for denying that they are responsible for any future uses of 358 missiles (as such a missile was allegedly “directed against” them).
In Militia Spotlight’s view, the “outing” of a 358 in Tuz is probably a coded communication of anti-air threats in the close vicinity of coalition aircraft. Due to the presence of remaining Islamic State hotspots in Tuz Khurmatu, open source transponder-track services (Figure 4) show that Tuz is a waypoint on the routing of most coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft and drones as they circuit through northern Iraq. The 358 has been designed specifically to attack such low-flying surveillance platforms, and has been used in Yemen to target U.S. and Saudi drones.
In Militia Spotlight’s view, the muqawama remains more likely to threaten anti-air attacks than undertake them, in order to deter or complicate coalition assistance to Iraq. This was our assessment in July, when previous anti-air threats were aired by the Saraya Awliya al-Dam (SAD) facade group. The muqawama still seems hesitant to maximize the lethality of its attacks, and an anti-air attack on a manned platform would be exceedingly provocative. This leaves attacks on U.S. drone systems, which could be attempted. Whether it is threatened or actual attacks against ISR aircraft hangars or airborne assets, or indeed threats against election observers and diplomats, the muqawama continues to deploy threats in a manner intended to reduce coalition and International Organization freedom of movement in Iraq.