TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Thousands of paramilitary forces from the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard have held a war game simulating the capture of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque from Israeli control.
Iran’s state media reported Saturday that the forces stormed and “liberated” a replica of the mosque in the exercise. They say that 120 brigades from the Basij, the paramilitary unit of the Guard, participated in Friday’s exercise outside the holy city of Qom in central Iran.
The symbolic operations were backed up by Guard helicopters, drones and Tucano planes that bombed hypothetical enemy positions before ground troops captured the replica of the mosque set up at the top of a mountain.
In a common mistake, the Guard set up a replica of the gold-topped Dome of the Rock instead of the nearby mosque. Official photos showed one of the troops going to the top of the dome and waving an Iranian flag and a red-colored flag, a symbol of martyrdom.
The hilltop compound, which is holy to Jews and Muslims, has been at the heart of weeks of unrest between Israel and the Palestinians. Muslims call the spot the Noble Sanctuary, and the mosque is Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Jews revere the spot as the Temple Mount — home to the biblical Temples and the holiest site in Judaism.
The current round of fighting was sparked in part by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over the site — a charge that Israel vehemently denies. Clashes outside the mosque erupted in September and quickly spread across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guard’s aerospace division, said his force deployed Shahed-121, or Witness-129, drones during the war games. The drone, unveiled in 2013, has a range of 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles), a 24-hour nonstop flight capability and can carry eight bombs or missiles.
Even so, the exercise appeared to be largely for show. Iranian commanders have not said how they would be able to deploy large numbers of forces against Israel, located 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away, or overcome Israel’s powerful and technologically advanced military.
Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, frequently expresses solidarity with the Palestinians and holds an annual “Jerusalem Day” each year on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan. Iran does not recognize Israel, has called for its destruction and supports anti-Israel militants across the Middle East.