Iraq News

Iran-aligned militias store weapons in populated Iraqi cities

By Hassan al-Obaidi in Baghdad

Iraqi fighters from the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia carry the coffins of eight fellow comrades who were killed in Syria, during their funeral in the holy city of Najaf on March 16th, 2016. [Haidar Hamdani/AFP]

Iraqi fighters from the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia carry the coffins of eight fellow comrades who were killed in Syria, during their funeral in the holy city of Najaf on March 16th, 2016. [Haidar Hamdani/AFP]

An explosion on Monday (August 12th) at an arms depot at the Saqr military camp south of Baghdad, where weapons used by Iran-backed militias are stored, sent missiles flying into neighbouring areas, wounding 29 people.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi ordered an investigation into the incident and said all military bases and arms depots were to be moved outside Iraqi cities, AFP reported.

The explosion is the latest in a series of similar incidents that have killed and wounded dozens of Iraqis in Baghdad, Karbala and Babil provinces over the past two years, sparking fears among residents over the presence of weapon and live ammunition depots in residential areas.

In mid-June, another explosion at a massive weapons depot belonging to the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq in the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad, resulted in considerable damage to public property.

In June 2018, an explosion at a weapons depot inside a husseiniyah in Sadr city in east Baghdad killed 11 civilians, including four children, and wounded 90 others. It also destroyed more than 20 homes, according to security officials.

Another explosion at an Asaib Ahl al-Haq arms depot in Baghdad al-Jadida in late 2016 resulted in the death and injury of 73 Iraqis.

Not complying with government orders

The explosions are believed to be caused by negligence leading to poor storage conditions and high temperatures, especially during the hot summer months, officials and experts say.

In September 2016, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi issued a decree ordering all militias to remove their weapons from cities and populated areas.

Many Iran-backed militias have not complied, officials told Diyaruna.

Armed groups known to be linked to Iran "refuse to move their weapon depots outside the cities, even though they use poor storage methods that increase the risk of explosion in the summer heat", said a senior Iraqi official with the Ministry of Interior.

"At least 100 arms depots are located in homes, houses of worship, garages and public buildings in the provinces of Baghdad, Babil, Karbala, Salaheddine, Diyala and Anbar," the source, who asked to remain anonymous, told Diyaruna.

They contain ammunition, missiles, rockets and raw explosives stored in a poor, unsafe manner and are located in densely populated neighbourhoods that are at risk of destruction due to an explosion at any moment, he said.

Not all armed groups complied with al-Abbadi's orders to move their weapons, he said, noting that some militias "known to be linked to Iran refused to do so".

Such militias include Harakat al-Nujaba, Saraya al-Khorasani, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Saraya Ashoura and Kataib Hizbullah, among others, he said.

Families forced to flee

Iran-backed militias are "stalling and postponing moving their weapons to locations away from residential neighbourhoods", said analyst Fouad Ali, who specializes in extremist groups.

Some families in Baghdad have left their homes "after militia elements moved into their neighbourhoods and turned some homes and houses of worship into their headquarters", he told Diyaruna.

"They left because they feared the occurrence of explosions similar to ones in the past that have killed dozens of citizens," he said.

The weapons that militias store inside cities "range from light to medium weapons and include artillery, rockets, raw explosives, IEDs and mines", Ali said.

These weapons are often referred to as "ISIS spoils", in reference to weapons left behind by ISIS, he said.

The militias were required to hand these weapons over to the government, but seized them instead, he added.

The Iraqi army must continue to pursue this issue as it is a cause for concern and poses a threat to the safety of civilians, Baghdad provincial council security committee member Saad al-Matlabi told Diyaruna.

'Major challenge'

These weapon depots "have become a major challenge for the state", said Firas Elo, a member of the Iraqi Civil Movement.

Armed groups whose allegiance lies with the Iraqi government have complied with al-Abbadi's orders to move their weapons outside of residential neighbourhoods, he told Diyaruna.

"But militias linked with Qassem Soleimani [commander of the IRGC's Quds Force], such as Kataib Hizbullah and Harakat al-Nujaba, have not complied and their weapons and explosives continue to threaten civilians and undermine the state’s authority and the law", he said.

The militias are using the homes of Christians and members of other minorities who were forcibly displaced in past years as headquarters and for weapon storage, Elo said.

The areas in which these militias maintain a presence are now "undesirable for living", he added.

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