Small Wars Journal

The Return of the Eastern Front: The Evolution of the Iraqi Threat in Israeli Eyes

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 12:39pm

The Return of the Eastern Front: The Evolution of the Iraqi Threat in Israeli Eyes

Lazar Berman

Iraq is returning to the attention of Israel's decision-makers. Speaking publicly at a conference in Herzliya, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi emphasized in no uncertain terms Iran's transfer of precision weapons into Iraq.  "The weaponry from Iraq passes through freely and we cannot allow this to happen without a response…," stressed Kochavi. "We will not let Iran secure a foothold in the northern theater at all, not even in Iraq."

On August 20, 2019, explosions rocked an arms depot north of Baghdad, Iraq. It was the latest in a series of strikes on the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), Iraqi militias dominated by Shiites loyal to Iran. Anonymous American officials told The New York Times that Israel was behind the strikes. Breaking from a policy of silence, Netanyahu confirmed to Channel 9 news that Israel is "working again Iranian consolidation – in Iraq as well."

Though Israel has been focused elsewhere recently, Iraq was for decades an active participant in the fight against Israel, and played a surprisingly significant role in the way Israel viewed the threats it faced. Though it is again on the minds of Israeli planners, the growing menace emanating from Iraqi territory is different in important ways than the one it posed over most of Israel's existence.

Historically, Iraq was seen by Israel primarily as a conventional challenge, whose ability to threaten Israel was commensurate with the strength of the Iraqi state. Looming beyond fragile Jordan and hostile Syria to the east, Iraq was perceived as a potential source of huge numbers of men, armored formations, and missiles. Indeed, Iraq was eager to send forces, sometimes in significant numbers, to fight the IDF over Israel's first decades of existence.

Iraq sent some 18,000 troops to fight Israel in the 1948/9 War of Independence, making it the largest single Arab force in the war, even gaining a victory over Israeli forces in Jenin. Israel reached a series of general armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. But Iraq, without a border with Israel, signed no agreement with Israel, instead simply withdrawing its troops in March 1949.

The Iraqi threat loomed so large in the minds of Israeli decision-makers that starting in 1963, Jerusalem supported the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq. Israel had a permanent presence in Iraqi Kurdistan by 1965, which included small teams of military advisors and medical professionals. The goal was to keep Iraqi forces occupied in the Kurdish mountains, and prevent Iraq from sending forces to fight Israel. The program saw significant successes, including the destruction of an entire Iraqi brigade at Mt. Handrin in 1966. But with its investment in Iraq at its height in 1967, Israel wanted Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani to open a new front to keep Baghdad from deploying troops to Israel. Barzani refused, saying his forces did not have the capacity to do so.

Without a Kurdish offensive to deal with, Iraq sent a division-sized expeditionary force to fight Israel.  The 8th Mechanized Brigade reached Jericho in time to join the losing fight there. Other brigades took much longer to arrive, and were not supplied the necessary ammunition.  Israeli Mirage-3 planes attacked Iraqi units gathered at the H-3 air force base attempting to reach Jordan. The experience convinced the Iraqi president to delay their entry into Jordan and avoid any further combat.[1] The Iraqi expedition force in Jordan and Syria was expanded to two divisions after the war, and engaged in periodic combat with Israeli forces.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War came as a total surprise to Iraq. Still, Baghdad decided to participate on the first day of the war. The Iraqi expeditionary force was massive this time. It sent two-thirds of its tanks, three-quarters of its air force, and its special forces units to the Syrian front. The performance, at least logistically, was far improved from 1967.  Without being party to the preparations for the war, the Iraqis were able to organize and transport a corps-sized force over a thousand miles relatively quickly. The 12th Armored Brigade was the first to reach the Syrian front on October 12, appearing on the IDF's flank and convincing advancing Israeli commanders to move into a defensive footing. But the Iraqis entered the fight in piecemeal brigade and regiment-sized attacks, and lost 835 soldiers, 111 armored vehicles, and 26 planes.[2]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Iraq posed a potentially far more lethal threat. Saddam Hussein initiated a secret nuclear weapons program beginning in the 1970s. After a clandestine campaign to disrupt the program, Israel struck the Osirak reactor on June 7, 1981.

Hussein then moved to develop a new threat against Israel. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam chose to target the Jewish state, hoping to provoke a response that would imperil the US-led coalition. The first Scud missile struck Tel Aviv. IDF leaders pushed for a deterrent response. Many dreamed big, but in the end, Israel's plans to strike Iraq and restore its deterrence came to nothing.[3]

After the Gulf War, the Iraqi threat remained. The scenario on the mind of Israeli planners was a possible takeover of Jordan, creating a massive conventional threat on Israel's long Eastern front.

Though this scenario never came to pass, Iraq was actively involved in supporting terrorism against Israel and Jews around the world. The Palestine Liberation Front, headed by Muhammad Zaidan (Abu Abbas) developed intimate ties with the Iraq regime. PLF members under Abu Abbas hijacked the Achille Lauro ship in 1985, killing the elderly American Jew Leon Klinghoffer.  Abbas ended up moving his headquarters to Baghdad after being released by Italian authorities.

At the start of the Second Intifada in late 2000, Saddam sought to position himself as the leading advocate for the violent Palestinian struggle in the Arab world. Documents captured by the IDF during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 revealed the extent of Iraqi support for Palestinian terrorism. Senior Saddam advisor Taha Yassin Ramadan headed the Ba'ath Party's Palestine Office, which used financial incentives to encourage attacks against Israelis. This effort included paying $25,000 to the families of Palestinian terrorists.  By 2002, Saddam had spent at least $10 million supporting the families of Palestinian terrorists.

Fear over the Iraqi threat dissipated after the 2003 Allied invasion drove Saddam from power. But once it became clear that eventually the US would withdraw the bulk of its forces, Israel began thinking about the threat from Iraq once again. In the 2007 discussions around the Tefen multi-year plan, there was a recognition that an American withdrawal would lead to increased Iranian influence over the country.

This is exactly what has transpired. Iran's influence over Iraqi politics and security has forced Israel to look once again at the threats emerging from the country. In the past, the danger from Iraq came from the state's conventional military, which in many ways reflected the power and coherence of the Iraqi state. The reality is now quite different. It is the weakness of the Iraqi state that has allowed Iran to turn it into another territory from which to threaten Israel. 

The irregular PMF is the primary tool in Iraq used to by Iran to develop its ability to strike Israel. Dominated by groups loyal to Tehran like the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hezbollah, the PMF was created in response the Islamic State's 2014 offensive in northern Iraq. But now IS has lost its territorial foothold in Iraq, and not surprisingly, the PMF is not about to disband. Instead, it is looking to assume a new role, one that goes way beyond its original mandate.

What might that future role look like, and how could it impact Israel?

Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the PMF has become a leading political player, gaining control over key ministries. In the May 2018 general elections in Iraq, the Fatah Alliance – composed of the leading Khameinist PMF organizations – came in second place, and then reached an agreement with the Sadrist Sairun Alliance to back the Shi’ite Abdul Mahdi as prime minister.

The PMF has also increased its influence over the Iraqi economy, for its own and for Iran's benefit. PMF groups loyal to Iran have taken advantage of the fight against ISIS to gain control of the local economy and siphon money to Iran. One example is the city of Jurf Al Sakhar, where Kataib Hezbollah have facilitated agricultural and oil projects whose proceeds flow to the IRGC.  Reconstruction efforts controlled by the PMF has allowed them to create economic structures parallel to those of the state. They profit from the black market, and even meet with foreign diplomats on trade.[4]

Even if the PMF does build an economic and military structure independent of Iraqi state control, why should Israel care?

The PMF could turn Iraq into a threat to Israel in several ways, some of which have already begun to provoke an Israeli response. The most obvious of these is facilitating the transfer of precision missiles from Iran to Syria through Iraq. Israel sees Iran's campaign to improve the precision capabilities of Hezbollah as crossing a red line, and has shown itself willing to take military action to disrupt this effort. It has struck weapons convoys and depots in Syria for years, and is starting to do so in Iraq.  

Iranian-backed proxies could also use western Iraq as a launching pad for rockets and missiles at Israel. Because of the distance and reduced intelligence coverage, it would be harder to Israel to combat rocket launches from Iraq than it currently is from Syria or Lebanon. In addition, the American presence in Iraq, though reduced, also makes IAF actions there more complex for Israel.

Iraq could also become a threat to IAF pilots. Providing the PMF and/or the Iraqi military with advanced air defense capabilities would make it even harder for the IAF to operate over Iraq and Syria. Endangering Israeli flights would reduce Israel's ability to maintain accurate intelligence over Iraq and parts of Syria, allowing Iran to develop infrastructure and transfer missiles more safely. In addition, Israel's freedom of action in striking Iranian convoys and proxies would be limited.

Though Iran's strategy is clear, it has provoked a serious reaction that could jeopardize its takeover of the Iraqi state. Since October 1, 2019, violent demonstrations against state corruption, unemployment, and Iranian interference have rocked the country. Significantly, Shiites have been at the forefront of the movement. So far, they have forced Abdel-Mahdi to resign, and Iraqi President Barham Salih threatened to resign as well instead of appoint a replacement that didn’t meet the demands of the protesters. If the protest movement succeeds, Iran will struggle to develop infrastructure in Iraq that provokes airstrikes by Israel and the United States, while wasting money that could be spent improving the lives of Iraqis.

The killing of Qassem Soleimani will also damage Iran's ability to deepen its control over the region, at least in the short term. On the other hand, it could lead to a withdrawal of US troops from the country, a boon for Iran.

Fractured and unstable, Iraq is not about to rebuild the conventional force that participated in wars against Israel and loomed large over its understanding of the threats it faced. But Iran's control over Iraq through PMF proxies has already begun to threaten Israel, and has the potential to deepen this trend. Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Syria continue to dominate Israel's security debate, but Iraq will increasingly become another weak state that Iran uses to threaten Israel.

End Notes


[1] Pesach Malovany, Wars of Modern Babylon: A History of the Iraqi Army from 1921 to 2003 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 47.

[2] Malovany, Wars of Modern Babylon, 61.

[3] Alex Fishman, "When Israel prepared to conquer Baghdad," Ynet, January 20, 2019.

[4] Haitham Numan, "The Challenge of Sovereignty: The PMF and Iranian Entrenchment in Iraq," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 6, 2019. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/the-challenge-of-sovereignty-the-pmf-and-iranian-entrenchment-in-iraq

Categories: Iraq - Israel

About the Author(s)

Mr. Lazar Berman is a researcher at the IDF's Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. He commanded a Bedouin unit during his active IDF service, and is a reservist captain in the IDF Commando Brigade. He holds an MA in military operations from Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he wrote his thesis on IDF innovation.