Israel carried out an airstrike against an alleged Iranian weapons depot in Iraq on July 19, according to two US officials and The Associated Press. The officials spoke to The New York Times and requested to remain anonymous. While Israel’s war on what it sees as Iran’s military entrenchment in the region is well established, this attack represents a step-up in the kind of direct-action Israel is willing to take. 

The confirmation from US officials comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implied Israel was behind raids on munitions depots being used by Iran-backed paramilitary forces in Iraq. Two Iranian military commanders were killed in the attack, which took place in Amirali in the northern province of Salaheddin.

Extending its military action into Iraq signals a marked escalation of Israeli military action in the region. 

Israel has admitted attacking several locations in neighboring Syria in recent years, primarily aimed at intercepting arms shipments believed to be heading to Hezbollah and its acolytes, closely allied to Iran. The Iranian government is strongly supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Israeli regime is paranoid that Iran will establish a permanent military presence in Syria, with which Israel shares a border. Yet extending its military action into Iraq signals a marked escalation of Israeli military action in the region. 

Last week, the deputy-head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (Iraqi Shia Militias) said that the attack was likely carried out by Israeli drones, with US backing, and threatened strong retaliation if similar attacks were to occur in the future. A senior Shia Militia official told The Associated Press that Lebanese military advisors were also present at the base when it was attacked. 

According to Al Jazeera: “Iranian-backed armed groups have been operating in Iraq with the full support of the government since 2014 when they joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.” Yet a new law, brought in on July 31, requires all paramilitary groups either to put down their weapons or declare their activities in full to the Iraqi security forces. Iraq finds itself in an almost impossible position, what with sectarian fighting on its own territory and the perils of trying to stay neutral amid growing tensions between the US and Iran.

“We act in many arenas against a country that desires to annihilate us. Of course, I gave the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart these plans of Iran.” `Netanyahu

Furthermore, there have been a series of recent attacks on bases in Iraq, including a large explosion at a military base in al-Saqr, near Baghdad on August 12, which killed one civilian and injured 28 others. There has been speculation for months that Israel is also behind such attacks. Speaking with a Russian language TV station, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intimated that such theories may have basis in fact. “I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere,” said the Prime Minister, directly in response to a question about whether Israel carries out attacks in Iraq. Netanyahu went on to say:  “We act in many arenas against a country that desires to annihilate us. Of course, I gave the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart these plans of Iran.”

If the report of the anonymous US officials is accurate, this would be the first known attack by Israel on Iraq since the infamous air raid in 1981, when Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor being built by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Such an admission would raise interesting questions: for one, Israeli drones or fighters may have had to pass through the airspace of Saudi Arabia or Turkey, both of which have complex and often antagonistic relations with Israel. US officials claim that the attack was launched from inside Iraq, but it is not clear exactly how such an operation would work, without collaboration with neighboring powers. It is often alleged that Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries without formal diplomatic relations, conduct clandestine relations based on their mutual antipathy towards Iran.

The eyes of the international community will be on Israel in the coming days and weeks to see if the state of Israel takes official responsibility for these attacks.