Iran aims to be king of the hill on key strategic mountain in Iraq

On this mountaintop where a Yazidi minority faced slaughter and extermination under a savage Islamic State siege, there's new concern about Iran establishing a key strategic foothold that could literally leave much of the region -- reaching as far as Israel -- in the crosshairs of attack. 

The tip of the 4,800-foot Sinjar Mountain, known locally as Chilmera, is a mostly quiet place. But this ostensibly picturesque setting -- it features a small white temple dedicated to Sharafadin, a holy Yazidi figure -- belies its potential strategic importance. 

A lookout spot atop the mountain offers a clear view across tens of miles in all directions. And some believe it could serve as an effective missile site against Israel, more than 500 miles away. 

“This point is the closest point to Israel in which Iran can do harm. And the view is clear, the plain is wide, there are no mountains in the way,” said Abdulrazaq Ali, an Erbil-based analyst who has long studied the issue. “It is also possible for Hezbollah to enter from Syria and get to this position.”

The importance of the spot apparently didn't go unnoticed by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is said to have used the mountain as the likely launch site for the 39 Scud missiles he fired into Israel during the Gulf War of 1991. 

Sinjar may also have been a testing site for Saddam's much-hyped plan to develop a “supergun” in the late 1980s. Dubbed “Big Babylon,” the weapon would have had a potential range of more than 600 miles, but it was never built. 

Whatever the potential as a missile site, Sinjar also serves as a vital piece of territory connecting Iraq and Syria, and is part of a larger “land corridor” that has taken shape in the recent years in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). 

The emergence of an Iranian-backed, Iraqi paramilitary force to fight ISIS allowed 100,000-plus fighters to secure control of a ground supply route that enables free passage from Tehran through Iraq, to its allies in the Syrian regime, and then directly into Hezbollah groups in Lebanon -- and thus, Israel’s doorstep.

There's little of the Iraqi military presence remaining from that time. But along with the chapel, there is a structure featuring a slab of six-foot-wide concrete steps that appear to lead some 30 feet up into nowhere. It was from here, some locals believe, that Saddam launched his Scuds. 

An Iraq flag flies high above the lookout point, but it's the forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish-dominated Syria opposition group that locals also refer to as the PKK -- the initials of the Kurdish force that has waged a separatist war against Turkey for more than 30 years -- standing guard here. 

Farther down the mountain, however, the roads and towns are controlled by a variety of militias influenced or entirely controlled by Iran. And with that influence, military analysts fear, comes the power for Iran to create trouble for its enemies far beyond what Hussein attempted. 

“Iran’s present arsenal is more diverse and more capable than Saddam’s arsenal,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “Iran’s missiles can function as both a tool of deterrence and coercion.”

Iranian-backed militias have gained uncontested control of not just Sinjar, but also the larger region. The four-hour drive from the Kurdish-held city of Duhok, through former ISIS bastions in Mosul and Tel Afar, requires passage through more than 40 checkpoints governed by a shifting array of Iraqi security forces and militia groups openly back by Iran, called Hashd al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

The mostly decimated city of Sinjar, at the foot of the mountain, is filled with Iraqi flags flapping above burned and bombed-out streets. But there's also a smattering of flags from militia groups that have carved out their own areas of control.

The PMU, known here as the “Lalish Forces,” is one of those groups. Named after the holy Yazidi temple, the group relies on support from BADR, which hs long been seen as Iran's oldest proxy group in Iraq. 

According to 24-year-old Lalish Forces leader Hamo Sherkani of the 400-person forces, half are volunteers and the other half receive salaries -- around $400 monthly -- directly from the BADR organization.

“We get all our support from BADR. Our food, trucks, oil, weapons,” he said, noting that the group receives shipments of everything from AK-47s to heavier weapons.

Other pro-Iranian groups are also active in Sinjar. There's the Imam Ali Combat Division, which is reportedly tightly linked with Iran’s religious leadership. There is also the Êzîdxan Protection Force, a local Yazidi militia that is said to get its money from Baghdad.

Then there's the PKK/YPG, whose quiet presence in Chilmera has long attracted the ire of Turkey. The group allegedly withdrew and removed itsr flags in recent weeks, but locals still consider it one of their protectors.It's not historically known as a particularly pro-Iranian group, and some analysts have seen a drift toward Tehran as the convenient allies pursue common goals.

A Washington Institute policy paper last year note the two groups share the commonality of “weakening Turkey’s influence,” and suggested that the PKK was “distracted by their rivalry” and allowed itself to be used as a proxy by Iran and regional powers.

While the PKK is reviled in Turkey, it is widely credited by the Yazidi community with saving many lives by coming to their aid after ISIS overran the region in August 2014. 

The various groups operating in Sinjar are, for now at least, getting along. Qasim Shesho, a top Yazidi commander in the area, said his forces sees groups of Persian speakers routinely moving through, using the mountainous terrain to cross into Syria.

The mountain top is even open to visitors. While there are logistical challenges in getting here, Qassim Osman, Chilmera's caretaker, emphasized there are no restrictions.  “We want this to be open to everyone. We won’t close our doors for those who are not Yazidi,” he said. “Christians, Muslims - anyone can come to visit.”

Some U.S. officials and experts in the northern region seem less concerned about the possibility of attacks on Israel from Mount Sinjar. Taleblu’s assessment is that at least in the short term, Iran “would not risk moving a medium-range ballistic missile into Iraq to fire at Israel,” noting Iran’s medium-range ballistic missiles already have the capability to reach Israel.

“The risk of a potential Israeli strikes in Iraq’s Sinjar go up if a next war breaks out, Israel shuts down or significantly hampers Iran’s bridge to Syria,” Amir Toumaj, an Iran research analyst at FDD added. “Any government in Baghdad would be opposed, and potential Israeli strikes would be more way to pressure if that comes to pass.”

But to Israelis themselves, the threat is lurking.

“The takeover of this strategic point in the region is a part of their successful strategy to control every possible point in the region, to fill every vacuum, and to use it for the next aggression and subversion,” Gen. Ephraim Sneh, former deputy defense minister of Israel, told Fox News. “Since their aim is to control Iraq entirely, it gives them a huge advantage.”

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay