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Iran, Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'ite Militias and SA-18's

The fallout continues after a British Lynx helicopter was shot down in Basra, Iraq on Saturday. Four British troops were killed in the crash as British officials held Muqtada al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army responsible for the attack which utilized a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile. Following a rise in attacks in the south of Iraq, at the hands of militias funded and armed by Iran, British forces appear to be lowering their security activities, dramatically reducing their over-the-road patrols fearing IED’s, replacing them largely with helicopter patrols. This decision left the Iranian-backed militias, primarily the al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades, relatively unchallenged and unfettered in their quest for dominance of Basra and the rest of southern Iraq.

Now that a helicopter has been shot down, there is talk in some circles of British withdrawal from Iraq altogether, while others see the incident as ‘A shot that changed the rules’. But the deputy commander of Multinational Forces - Iraq, British Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fry, sees nothing in the talk of withdrawal. It is the Iraqi government’s job to track down and defeat these armed militias, and General Fry said that if they fail to do so, British troops may be deployed to do the job. Not only did the riots incited by the militias following the crash rightly disturb the Brits, but the stakes are now clearly higher and the specter of ceding southern Iraq to Iran via Shi’ite militias is feared an unpleasant reality.

After finding missile casings in the third floor of the building from where the missile was fired, it was confirmed that the missile used was a Russian design, quite possibly directly supplied from Iran or indirectly from Iranian child Hizballah or Syria. The article stops short of identifying the weapon for security reasons, but limits the field of potential suppliers rather specifically.

Iranian involvement in killing US, British and Iraqi forces via Hizballah facilitation has been going on for some time. It should be noted with interest that meetings have taken place publicly among Iranian, Hizballah and Syrian figures, including suspicion of activity from Imad Fayez Mugniyah, believed to be present with Ahmadinejad in a recent trip to Syria. Through proxies such as Hizballah, the al-Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades (and others) and their press for nuclear weapons, Iran clearly seeks regional hegemony. This includes thinly veiled confrontation with Coalition forces within Iraq.

The primary Telegraph article referenced here stopped short of naming the model of the Russian-made missile used in the attack on the British Lynx, but did go so far as to say that “(h)undreds of the missiles [identified by/to The Telegraph] are known to have been sold to Iran and some to Syria, leading to speculation that some might have been passed to Iraq’s insurgents.” This includes several missile models, but points to two primary possibilities: The SA-18 Grouse (Igla 9K38) and possibly the even newer SA-16 Gimlet (Igla-1 9K310).

In recent years, attempts by Russia to sell the SA-18 Grouse in packages to Syria were halted under the objections of Israel, rightly fearing that any transfer to Syria would result in a transfer to Hizballah in Lebanon. The advanced SA-18, a vast improvement on the SA-7 already possessed by Hizballah, is feared by Israel as a threat to their civilian airliners more so than military aircraft. (The SA-7 was used in the failed attempt to bring down an El Al airliner taking off in Kenya. Perhaps an improved SA-18 would have found its mark with better targeting guidance, range and countermeasure [flare] evasion capabilities.)

Global Security notes the 1997 agreement by Russia to sell 500 of the SA-18’s to Iran, which is also reflected at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) site as the number known in the Iranian arsenal, likely far more nearly a decade later. And, if Iran has them and desires it, Hizballah has them already as well. In fact, the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin noted in 2003 that it was suspected that Hizballah already had possession of the SA-18’s, shipped before Israel successfully pulled the plug on an earlier Russian-Syrian arms deal. If Hizballah received a number of the SA-18’s, it is only logical to conclude that Syria may have also. This would be consistent with The Telegraph’s numbers, saying that “(h)undreds of the missiles [500 as shown] are known to have been sold to Iran and some to Syria [following the Hizballah supply logic].

If Hizballah indeed has them, under the direction of Iran it is more than plausible that Shi’ite militias in the south of Iraq will have them as well, if and when Iran desire(d) it so. Gauging by the Hizballah assistance in bomb making (similar concealment and triggering techniques showing up in Iraq) and the capture of IED shipments directly from Iran across the Iraq border, an SA-18 threat in Iraq is very real.

It has been believed (though unconfirmed) that in January, an SA-18 was fired upon a C-130 transport carrying US Congress members from Baghdad to Kuwait. The Congressional passengers said that whatever was fired at the aircraft, countermeasures onboard allowed evasion of the missile. In an effort to further policy fitting US domestic aircraft with countermeasures against missiles, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, “We had a scare in Iraq in January, when my colleagues said they believed a shoulder-fired missile was fired at their plane.”

Was the British Lynx attack simply the first successful SA-18 attack since the January attempt at a high-value target?