The drone attack by a little-known armed group in Iraq against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week has raised questions about Baghdad’s involvement in regional tensions between Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition.
Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq (AWH), or the True Promise Brigades, claimed responsibility for the strike against the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, saying in a statement it launched “four drones targeting vital facilities in Abu Dhabi” in retaliation for the Emirates. policies in Iraq and Yemen.
Several analysts linked the strikes to a shadowy militia of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), a powerful Iran-backed Shia armed group in Iraq that has been listed by the United States as a “terrorist organization”.
The incident revealed that the UAE was now being targeted from the north and south, following three recent attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Following the drone strikes, Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr condemned the attack in a statement, saying some ‘outlaw terrorists’ had dragged Iraq into a ‘dangerous regional war’ by targeting a state of the Gulf.
Although al-Sadr called for an end to the war in Yemen and the normalization of relations with Israel, he denounced violence as a means to achieve these goals.
An Iraqi springboard?
While Iraq’s attack was a significant development, analysts said it did not indicate Baghdad was being drawn deeper into regional tensions between Iran – which is aligned with Yemen’s Houthis – and Saudi Arabia, which has been fighting with the United Arab Emirates in Yemen since 2015 against rebels.
“Iraq has already been involved in this conflict, with the Hashd [paramilitary factions] and associated Shia jihadist groups with close ties to the Houthis,” said Talha Abdulrazaq, an Iraq expert and research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Institute for Strategy and Security.
“Previous strikes against official Saudi compounds and oil facilities were launched from Iraqi territory,” he added.
Prior to Wednesday’s incident, Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq claimed responsibility for a drone attack targeting Yamama Palace in the Saudi capital Riyadh in January 2021, saying it was retaliation for a claimed suicide bombing by the ISIL (ISIS) group in a shopping center in Baghdad. district two days earlier.
Lahib Higel, senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Iraq “is already part of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and will always be part of it for as long as it exists.”
“The attack does not necessarily mean that Iraq will be dragged further, but it is a strong indication that the divide in Iraq [between pro-Iran and pro-Saudi factions] …even within the so-called Shia house will continue,” Higel said.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States, and Iran, which opposes Riyadh and Washington in multiple conflicts in the Middle East, has long been played out in Iraq.
While some Iraqi groups, including the current government, pivot to Riyadh, many powerful Shia paramilitary groups and resistance factions, including Kataib Hezbollah, support Tehran. Additionally, as a hotbed of powerful Iranian-backed militias, Iraq has been used as a battleground between Iran and the United States.
In January 2020, a US drone strike killed revered Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, pushing Washington and Tehran to the brink of war. Iran and affiliated Iraqi militias have since targeted several US diplomatic sites and military bases where US troops were stationed.
“Message from Iran”
Higel said the attack was therefore a two-pronged message from Iran that “it can strike from different places, not just Yemen.” [and] he does not approve of the recent visit of the Israeli president to the United Arab Emirates”, or more broadly the normalization between Israel and several Arab states.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog made his first visit to the United Arab Emirates last week, a month after Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the Gulf country.
The warming of diplomatic relations came after the Emirates normalized relations with Israel in September 2020. Three other Arab countries – Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – have also established diplomatic relations with Israel under the so-called agreements. of Abraham negotiated by the United States.
Tamer Badawi, an Iraqi analyst and PhD student at the University of Kent, called the AWH “a front or a real surrogate that operates on behalf of the KH”, saying that in addition to its rejection of normalization with Israel, the attack had an additional effect. “message from Iran” ahead of upcoming talks with Saudi Arabia in Baghdad.
“It is unclear whether the attack would help Iran bolster its influence ahead of the talks or undermine its position, but the increase in attacks on Abu Dhabi, whether from Iraq or Yemen, certainly puts the spotlight on Iran. Saudi Arabia warns against developing ties with Israel,” Badawi said.
According to Badawi, the AWH attack on the Emirates also reflects domestic politics and internal tensions in Iraq, after Iran-backed paramilitary groups and their political wings lost a significant number of seats in parliamentary elections. Iraqis of October 10.
“The KH and other groups are politically frustrated with the election result and Muqtada al-Sadr’s continued attempts to downplay their political stakes in the next government,” Badawi said.
“Such an attack on Abu Dhabi satisfies their [pro-Iran groups’] supporters and voters, but also sends a threatening message to political opponents such as al-Sadr himself.”
Since his strong election in the October vote, al-Sadr has reiterated his commitment to forming a “national majority government”, which would essentially sideline powerful pro-Iranian groups and figures who suffered devastating losses in the elections. These include former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Fatah alliance, the political bloc that houses the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Iraq has seen an escalation in violence since the vote with a number of attacks on Baghdad including blasts targeting banks associated with Kurdish politicians, grenades that landed on Sunni party headquarters and offices and rockets that fell on the United States Embassy in the Green Zone.
In addition, analysts say, the attack could also be a message to Sunni parties and leaders who made significant gains in the vote, including re-elected speaker of parliament and leader of the Sunni Taqaddum party, Mohammed Halbousi, and leader of the Sunni Al-Azim party. Khamis al-Khanjar.
“The political gains of al-Halbusi and his ‘enemy’ al-Khanjar are seen to be due to the political engineering of Abu Dhabi and Ankara,” Badawi said.
“Their [militias’] think might be that if their [Sunni factions] regional interlocutor can be bombarded, he can be forced more easily to realign himself away from Sadr”.