Rockets used in attack on Kurdistan region in Iraq linked to Iran

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The Grad rocket has its origins in the Soviet Union and katyusha rockets.

A Kurdistan Region Peshmerga looks out at ISIS positions from his frontline near Kirkuk in 2015 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

A Kurdistan Region Peshmerga looks out at ISIS positions from his frontline near Kirkuk in 2015

(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The rockets fired at Erbil on September 30 were of a similar type often exported by Iran to its proxy and terror groups. According to reports from the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq at least six rockets were fired from the Nineveh plains outside of Mosul and travelled around 36 km to land near the village of Gazna, several kilometers from the Erbil International Airport.

The launcher for the rockets was found. They were in the back of a Bongo-style civilian use white truck, housed in long tubes specially constructed for them. Bongo trucks, which are basically a truck used for transporting items and can be used by tradespeople. They are ubiquitous and also a truck of choice for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. They can be easily oufitted with the 107mm katyusha-style rocket launcher that these groups often used. They can also be used as a mobile rocket unit for the 122mm rockets, known as BM-21 Grad rockets. These trucks were also a staple of the Iraqi insurgency when US forces were present in large numbers in Iraq in 2010-2011.

The Grad rocket has its origins in the Soviet Union and katyusha rockets. It appeared in the 1960s and has been used and exported widely. Iran has increased the range of its 122mm weapons over time. It has also specifically sent the 122 Grad rocket for export to groups it supports. In 2009 inspectors from the UAE found a weapons aboard the ANL Australia, according to reports at the time. Key elements for thousands of short-range rockets. The assessment was that these were North Korean and Chinese “components” that Iran used in 122mm Grad rockets that have a range of 40km when they have been used by Hamas and Hezbollah. Over 2,000 “detonators” were found on the Australia for these rockets, according to the Washington Post.

A separate raid on the Froncop by Israel in the same year found 500 tons of weapons. Israe described these as arms meant for Hezbollah. “The heaviest munitions, 122mm katyusha rockets, were packaged in created labelled ‘parts of bulldozer.’” These weapons were shipped to Hamas as well. Iranian-made 122m rockets had a range of 30km in their 2009 version. They were designed specifically for Hamas in some cases, sent in parts of four to be assembled later after being moved via tunnels to the terror group. At the time Iran was using technology from its Fajr-style rockets to try to increase the range of these munitions. Hezbollah and Hamas used these rockets against Israel.

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US officials, due to the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, carried out assessments on the types off configurations typically found in these Iranian-made systems. These included the 6-12 tube versions. This same configuration, of 12 tubes, was on the Bongo truck on September 30. The truck would have come from central or southern Iraq or been fitted with the tubes somewhere near Mosul. It would then have been driven out on the road that leads toward Erbil, east off Bartella where the plains meet a hillside and there is a village called Sheikh Amir. The rocket was now at the end of its effective range to almost reach the airport in Erbil. Iranian-backed groups know that the airport is key to the stability of the Kurdistan region and that US-led coalition elements operate from there. In January Iran fired ballistic missiles at Erbil after the US killed IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.

During the September 30 attack two of the rockets did not reach their target. The target anyway was a field, it seems it was to send a message. They were nearing the end of their effective range. They are not particularly precise even though Iran has increased precision of other rockets. For instance Iran used Fateh-style rockets to attack Kurdish dissidents near Koya, east of Erbil, in 2018.

Iran has also exported these rockets for many years to Afghanistan. While Iran once aided groups opposed to the Taliban, it appears that in recent years it sought to export the rockets to target the US. In January eight Iranian-made rockets were found aimed at Kandahar airport. They were 1.5 meters in length. In 2011 British special forces also found a shipment of 48 122mm rockets destined for the Taliban and sent from Iran.

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Iran said in July that its ‘Arash’ version of the 122mm weapon has become a “precision” weapon today. The article asserted Iran has created a 122mm rocket that is accurate up to 7 meters and has a range of 22mm with a 19kg warhead. The overall rocket weighs 64kg. Iran said that prior to the upgrade it used to put the rockets on military trucks in groups of 40 because they are not accurate. This new type was apparently a different version than those being exported.

The Kurdistan region has called for Iraq to investigate the rocket attacks. In the past Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah has been responsible for attacks on US forces in Iraq. Other groups, sometimes with new names, have claimed responsibility for dozens of rocket and explosive attacks on convoys that support US facilities and attacks on the US embassy and airport in Baghdad. Recent attacks killed a family. The US has put air defense in place to stop the attacks. The recent attack has the complexity that would likely link it to a group such as Kataib Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC. IRGC head Esmail Ghaani was recently in Iraq. Iran may have planned the attack directly after the US warned it would close its embassy in Baghdad and move elements to the Kurdistan region.

The area the attack was carried out from is festooned with Hashd al-Shaabi or PMU checkpoints. The Hashd is paid by the government as a paramilitary unit. It includes Kataib Hezbollah and other groups. The 30th brigade, responsible for security in the area where the attack was made is a minority unit of Shebek fighters. They are affiliated with the Badr Organization which is led by Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri was close to former Kataib leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Muhandis was killed by the US in January when we went to Baghdad airport to meet Soleimani. This would indicate that the rocket fire may have been planned in coordination with Iran and Ghaani of the IRGC and used a Badr-affiliated unit to enable the truck to pass the checkpoints. It signals Iran’s attempt to send a message to the Kurdistan region and show that it can destabilize the region by targeting the airport.

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