Former Iraq PM Warns of 'Strong Response' if Israel Proven Responsible for Strikes

Nouri al-Maliki's comments come hours after U.S. officials confirm to NYT that Israel was responsible for bombing of Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month

An Iraqi soldier stands next to a military vehicle at the entry of Zubair oilfield in Basra, Iraq June 19, 2019.
Essam Al-Sudani / Reuters

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is warning of a "strong response" if it is proven that Israel was behind recent airstrikes in Iraq.

In statements issued by his office on Friday, he also said that if Israel continues to target Iraq, the country "will transform into a battle arena that drags in multiple countries, including Iran."

The comments by al-Maliki, who was Iraqi prime minister for eight years and now heads a Shiite bloc in parliament, came hours after U.S. officials  confirmed that Israel was responsible for the bombing of an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month, an attack that would mark a significant escalation in Israel's years-long campaign against Iranian military entrenchment across the region.

>> Read more: Unhappy with Iraq strikes, U.S. outs Israel | Analysis

The confirmation comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is strongly hinting that his country is behind recent airstrikes in Iraq.

Two American officials said Israel carried out an attack on an Iranian weapons depot that killed two Iranian military commanders. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

The Friday report also quoted a senior Middle Eastern intelligence official, who said that Israel was specifically responsible for a July 19 attack north of Baghdad on a base he told the Times was being used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards "to transfer weapons to Syria." The strike, according to the same official, destroyed guided missiles with a range of 200 kilometers.

According to the official, the attack was launched from within Iraq.

A series of blasts in the past few weeks have hit weapon depots and bases belonging to paramilitary groups in Iraq, many of them backed by Israel's regional foe Iran. The groups blamed the United States and Israel for the blasts on Wednesday.

In an interview with Russian-language Israeli television Channel 9, broadcast on Thursday, Netanyahu was asked whether Israel would operate against Iranian targets in Iraq if needed, he said: "We are operating – not just if needed, we are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran's plans."

Netanyahu did not directly name Iraq as one of those areas.

A senior U.S. official quoted by the New York Times on Friday said Israel was "pushing the limits" with alleged strikes in Iraq, risking "getting the United States military removed from Iraq."

Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria, some of them against Iranian targets, to prevent Teheran from establishing a permanent military presence there and to stop advanced weapons reaching its proxies in the area.

Israeli officials suggested recently they viewed Iraq, whose main ally is Iran, as more of a threat than in recent years, but have not directly commented on the recent blasts at Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) sites in Iraq.

On Wednesday, the PMF, the umbrella grouping of Iraq's mostly Shi'ite Muslim paramilitary groups, said the United States had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region accompanying U.S. forces and carry out missions on Iraqi territory.

The Pentagon denied involvement. The U.S.-led coalition, in Iraq to fight remnants of the Islamic State group, dismissed the statement.

As tensions between Washington and Tehran increase, Iraq finds itself caught between neighboring Iran, whose regional influence has grown in recent years, and the United States.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi last week ordered all ammunition dumps belonging to the armed forces or paramilitary groups to be moved outside of cities.

He also cancelled all special flight permissions for Iraqi and foreign aircraft, meaning that sorties, including by the U.S.-led coalition operating against Islamic State militants, must be cleared in advance by the prime minister.