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Iraq PMU leaders blame ‘external’ forces for mysterious base explosions

Hashd al-Shaabi leader Faleh al-Fayyad appeared to walk back comments from deputy Abul Mahdi al-Muhandis blaming the US for recent explosions

Abul Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi militias, declared on Wednesday, August 21 that he holds the United States responsible for a series of recent explosions at bases belonging to the militias.

Though an Iraqi government investigation has yet to determine any cause, Muhandis alleged that U.S. predominance over Iraq’s airspace means they carry “primary and ultimate responsibility” for the explosions.

Faleh al-Fayyad, the head of the force, did not echo Muhandis’s claim of U.S. involvement, saying in a statement that a preliminary investigation had determined “an external, premeditated act” was to blame for the explosions.

“The investigations will continue until the responsible entities are accurately identified to be able to take the appropriate stances,” AFP reported Fayyad as saying late Wednesday after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Muhandis’s statement does not represent the Hashd’s official position, Fayyad said.

Over the past two months, munitions caches at four separate Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) bases in Iraq have detonated, including one in Baghdad that sent rockets crashing into a residential neighborhood.

Iraqi lawmakers have speculated that U.S. or Israeli airstrikes may have been behind the explosions, though no sides have claimed responsibility.

The Pentagon has denied the U.S. was involved in the blasts.

“We will hold them responsible for what is happening from today onward. We have no choice but to defend ourselves,” Muhandis said in the statement, which was posted to social media.

Muhandis also claimed that the U.S. has allowed Israel to transfer four drones into Iraq via Azerbaijan, citing no evidence.

“We have informed [Iraq’s] Joint Operations Command that we will consider any foreign aircraft flying over our headquarters without the knowledge of the Iraqi government to be hostile, and we will deal with it accordingly. We will use all methods of deterrence to prevent attacks on our headquarters,” the statement read.

Last week Abdul Mahdi ordered all flights over Iraqi airspace to be treated as hostile unless approved by him. The U.S.-led Coalition has said it is complying with this order.

Abdul Mahdi’s decree came in response to a massive explosion at a PMU ordnance depot earlier this month that set off a number of stored rockets, killing one and wounding 26 others near Camp Saqr (Falcon) in southern Baghdad.

The prime minister has ordered an investigation into the incident, which is scheduled to conclude later this week. Iraqi officials initially blamed the detonation on poor ordnance storage techniques and soaring temperatures in the capital.

The prime minister’s decree also ordered all munitions stockpiles to be removed from Iraq’s urban areas.

Brigadier General Yehya Rasoul, spokesperson for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, said Saturday that although the investigation into the Camp Saqr explosion is not complete, a “hypothesis” had been reached that it was triggered by an airstrike, but offered no evidence. Rasoul did not respond to requests for comment.

Describing a separate incident, the head of Iraq’s Civil Defense said on Tuesday that a fire near al-Balad airbase in Salahuddin province occurred at a stockpile belonging to a local Iran-linked PMU.

On July 28, Al-Arabiya reported that an explosion at Camp Ashraf killed a number of Hezbollah fighters.

In June, the Iraqi Army said an unidentified drone bombed a PMU base in Salahuddin province. The U.S.-led Coalition denied responsibility for that incident.

Neither U.S. Central Command and the U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS responded to questions over whether units under their command have participated in intelligence sharing about PMU positions in Iraq with U.S. allies.

Both the U.S. and Israel are concerned that Iran-linked militias have been transporting Iranian missile systems into Syria via Iraq. Israel has conducted a number of airstrikes against Iran-affiliated targets in neighboring Syria in recent years with unofficial U.S. support.

The Iraqi government is working to integrate the PMUs, which boast some 120,000 fighters, under Baghdad’s central control. Many of the militias are backed by Iran.

Organized in 2014 to fight Islamic State’s takeover of much of Iraq’s northwest, the Hashd al-Shaabi have monopolized significant energy resources and smuggling routes in the country.

Baghdad pays PMU fighters salaries equal to those it pays the Iraqi Army and has insisted they become part of Iraq’s official security forces.

On the ground, however, the militias are largely influenced by local commanders and by Muhandis, the former head of Kata’ib Hezbollah who the U.S. government has designated a terrorist linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Trump administration designated the IRGC a terrorist organization earlier this year amidst its “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran, which the U.S. accuses of expansionist activities in the region.

The Trump administration has said it will hold Iran accountable for any threat posed to U.S. forces by the PMU.

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