BAGHDAD (AP) – Drones loaded with explosives aimed at Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were fired from inside Iraq, a senior Iranian-backed police officer in Baghdad and a US official said.
Speaking to the Associated Press this week, the policeman said that three drones were shot down from the Iraqi-Saudi border areas by a relatively unknown Iranian-backed faction in Iraq and crashed into the royal complex in Riyadh on January 23, escalating tensions in the region.
Attacks on the Saudi capital are sporadic amid the kingdom̵
However, Iranian rebel Hutus have denied an attack on Yamama Palace in Saudi Arabia on January 23.
A senior Iraqi militia official commented for the first time that an Iranian-backed group acknowledged that Iraq was the source of the attack, and noted the challenge facing Baghdad in stopping attacks by Iranian-backed militia factions in Iraq.
This was followed by a claim for responsibility allegedly made by a little-known group called Awliya Wa’ad al-Haq, or the “Brigades of True Promise”, circulating on social media, calling it revenge for a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group in a major shopping district in Baghdad on January 21st.
The police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack, said the drones came “in parts of Iran and were assembled in Iraq and fired from Iraq.” He did not reveal where the drones were fired at the border and did not provide further details about the group claiming the attack.
Iran-backed groups split significantly after a Washington-led strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad more than a year ago. Both were key to the command and control of a wide range of Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq.
After their deaths, the militias became increasingly rebellious and heterogeneous. Some Washington-based analysts say militias have split just to allow them to claim attacks under different names to cover up their involvement.
A U.S. official said Washington believed the attack on Yamama Palace on Jan. 23 began inland Iraq. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not specify or say how the United States came to this conclusion.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the regulations, said that US intelligence was shared with the Iraqi government.
Launching a strike from Iraq would pose a challenge to Saudi air defenses, now focused on threats from Iran in the northeast and Yemen in the south. Such unmanned aerial vehicles are also small enough and fly low enough to the ground to not be taken on the radar.
The attack comes as Iraq seeks to deepen economic ties with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies over various investment projects. President Barham Salih visited the United Arab Emirates last week, and Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein visited Saudi Arabia this week, apparently to discuss the attack.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns of Washington and Samya Kullab of Baghdad contributed to the report.