BAGHDAD (AP) – Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraq, a senior militia-backed official said by Iran in Baghdad and an American official.
Speaking to the Associated Press this week, the militia official said three drones were launched from the Iraqi-Saudi border areas by a relatively unknown Iran-backed faction in Iraq and crashed into the compound. Royal Riyadh on January 23, exacerbating regional tensions.
Attacks on the Saudi capital have been sporadic amid the kingdom’s years of war against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Earlier this month, rebels targeted an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia with bomb-laden drones, igniting a civilian plane on the tarmac.
Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, however, have denied carrying out an attack on Yamama Palace in Saudi Arabia on January 23.
The comments by the senior Iraqi militia official mark the first time that an Iranian-backed group has acknowledged that Iraq was behind the attack and underscored the challenge Baghdad faces in stopping the attacks from Iranian-backed militia factions in Iraq.
It followed a claim of responsibility allegedly made by a little-known group called Awliya Wa’ad al-Haq, or “The True Promise Brigades,” which circulated on social media, calling it retaliation for a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group a main shopping district in Baghdad on January 21.
The militia official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack, said the drones were coming “in parts of Iran and had been assembled in Iraq and had been launched from Iraq ”. He did not disclose where along the border the drones were launched and did not provide further details on the group claiming the attack.
Iranian-backed groups have split considerably since the Washington-led strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad over a year ago. Both have played key roles in commanding and controlling a wide range of Iranian-backed groups operating in Iraq.
Since their deaths, the militias have become increasingly unruly and disparate. Some Washington-based analysts say the militias broke out only to allow them to claim attacks under different names to hide their involvement.
A US official said Washington believed the Jan. 23 attack on Yamama Palace was launched from inside Iraq. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not explain or explain how the United States came to this conclusion.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity under the regulations, said US intelligence had been shared with the Iraqi government.
Launching a strike from Iraq would pose a challenge to Saudi air defense, now focused on threats from Iran in the northeast and Yemen in the south. Such drones are also small enough and fly low enough on the ground that they cannot be detected by radar.
The attack comes as Iraq seeks to deepen its economic ties with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies through various investment projects. Last week, President Barham Salih visited the United Arab Emirates and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein visited Saudi Arabia this week, apparently to discuss the attack.
Associated Press editors Robert Burns in Washington and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this report.