Message in a mortar

On 21 November Wathiq al-Battat, an Iraqi Shi`i cleric and the secretary general of Kata`ib Hizballah, the Iraqi militia modeled after the Lebanese Hizballah, announced on Sharqiya News that his Jaysh al-Mukhtar (the Mukhtar Army) had fired six mortar shells into Saudi Arabia.  The attack, which targeted a Saudi border post near the Iraq and Kuwait borders and caused little damage and no injuries, came two days after the suicide bombing that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut and amidst a wave of bombing attacks targeting Shi`i Muslims in Iraq, receiving little media attention.  Though seemingly insignificant – the purpose of the attack was not to inflict casualties or extensive damage – the attack was a serious provocation, delivering an emphatic message from Tehran, via one of its proxy militias in Iraq, to the rulers in Saudi Arabia to stop meddling in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Baluchistan, which Iran considers its spheres of influence. It also fulfilled a previous threat Battat made to strike Saudi Arabia. According to Arab News, Battat stated that “the goal was to send a warning message to the Saudis to tell them that their border stations and patrols are within our range of fire.” He continued, “This is just the beginning and there will be more attacks if they (the Saudis) do not stop.”

Battat created the Mukhtar Army as an offshoot of Kata`ib Hizballah in February 2013 with the express aim of targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq and former Baathists, exacting revenge for the violence each has wrought against Iraqi Shia.  The Mukhtar Army’s first militant acts were attacks against Sunni protestors in Iraq’s Anbar province who were demanding political reforms and the release of political prisoners. The group also attacked the Camp Liberty base that housed fighters from the anti-Iranian militant group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), and carried out a bombing in Baghdad on February 17 that killed over 100 people.  Shortly thereafter the Interior Ministry of Iraq issued a warrant for Battat’s arrest but he has yet to be detained. Battat, when asked, does not hesitate to confirm his ties to Iran and ideological allegiance to Khamenei and wilayat al faqih (rule of the jurisprudent. Given his stated allegiances and the context in which he established the Mukhtar Army, it is very likely that Iran played a role in inducing his organization to strike Saudi Arabia.

To say that there is no love lost between the ideological, religious and regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia does not do justice to the deep seated hatred that exists between the two.  The Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Kingdom has been concerned for years over the spread of Shi`i Islam in general, which it deems heretical, and the exportation of the Iranian Revolution to its borders. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan expressed a fear of the spread of a “Shia Crescent” reaching from Iraq through Syria and into Lebanon, a fear that Saudi Arabia shared.  This fear has been realized. A Shia-dominated government rules in Baghdad, and Iran and Hizballah have effectively propped up Bashar al-Asad’s Alawite regime and hold the Lebanese political system hostage to their demands. The mortar attack by a radical pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militia plays on the Saudis’ worst fears.  Tehran has reached a deal with the West on its nuclear program that does not preclude a breakout has successfully established militant proxy forces on Saudi Arabia’s Iraqi and Yemeni borders, and effectively countered Saudi designs in Syria and Lebanon.  While these two regional powers vie to protect their respective spheres of influence and propagate their opposing religious visions of Islam, expect more events like this. Iran, acting through its Iraqi proxy, is sending a message to the Saudis: at any time, the war of words may turn into a war of deeds. The first shots have been fired.

About the Author
Carl Yonker is a Junior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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