Iran Switching to Hard Ball in a Last Attempt to Control Iraq

“Good Opportunity”

A “good opportunity” is how Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi – one of the Iranian regime’s most senior clerics – described the events of June 10.

By most accounts, the fall of Mosul on that date was exactly the crisis the mullahs needed to tighten their grip on Iraq.

In a June 16  article for the New York Times, under the headline “ISIS Will Fail in Iraq, and Iran Will Be the Victor,” Steven Simon of the Middle East Institute predicted that, “to the extent that this sectarian brawl produces something resembling a winner, it won’t be in Washington, Mosul or Baghdad – but in Tehran.”

Drawing much the same conclusion, Middle East experts Michael Doran and Max Boot wrote in the Washington Post on June 17 that “the rise of ISIS provides Tehran with multiple benefits. For one thing, it makes … the Shi’ites of Iraq ever more dependent on Iranian protection.”

Nor is the long shadow cast over Iraq by the Iranian regime visible only from a Western perspective.

As Iraq’s Azzaman daily – a favourite of Iraqis in the country’s predominantly Shi’ite south – reported on September 4, “The stunning military successes by the Islamic State (IS) have made Iraq more reliant on Iran than any time before … IS’s invasion [has] given Tehran more leverage on almost all aspects of life in the country.”

Likewise, on October 1, Iranian dissident and human rights activist Amir Basiri argued in Forbes magazine that “Iran has been able to benefit immensely from the havoc that the Islamic State has wreaked across Iraq … [by using it] as an excuse to surge thousands of troops through the porous Iran-Iraq border and notch up the violent activities of its many proxy militia groups.”

Indeed, in the months that followed the Mosul takeover, at least 5,000 Revolutionary Guards – including 200 elite Qods Force officers – swarmed across the border into Iraq, while membership of the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia tripled to over 30,000, swelling the total number of Iraq’s Shi’ite militiamen to well in excess of 150,000.

Consequently, the Pentagon assessed that, by mid-July, the Iraqi army was “deeply infiltrated” and had become “heavily dependent on Shi’ite militias – many of which were trained in Iran – as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Qods Force,” the New York Times revealed.

According to Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, as reported by the World Tribune on September 22, “A study by US Central Command determined that 24 of the 50 brigades in the Iraqi army … [are] dominated by Shi’ites believed [to be] aligned with Iran.”

In an interview with CNN on October 13, Fareed Zakaria of the Council on Foreign Relations summarised the state of Iraq’s military in blunter – but no less accurate – terms: “There’s no real Iraqi army … If you scratch the surface of the Iraqi army, it’s a bunch of sectarian militias.”

All of this corroborates the following information, contained in a report handed to the author during a meeting with Iraqi tribal representatives in late June:

“Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), has set up his headquarters in the Baghdad International Airport zone, where he is directing the reorganisation and amalgamation of the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias into 200-man battalions, each of which is to be commanded by an IRGC-QF officer. Soleimani’s chief of staff is Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, a senior advisor to the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia … Recently, Soleimani met with Hadi al-Ameri, Iraqi Transport Minister and leader of the Badr Brigade militia, to negotiate the merger of the Badr Organisation with Kata’ib Hezbollah … For all intents and purposes, Soleimani is now the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.”

Rather than downplaying its control over the Iraqi army, the Iranian regime has sought to publicize it, with the state-run Fars News proudly affirming that “Soleimani is the actual leader of the Iraqi forces,” according to Iraqi News.

With Iraq in chaos and the reins of its military firmly in the mullahs’ hands, the Iran newspaper – a publication owned by the Islamic Republic News Agency – felt confident enough to claim in a June 26 editorial that, “[since] there is no way to resolve the escalating crisis in Iraq domestically, … Iran can pave the way for an interim coalition” to govern Iraq.

This, however, proved to be an overoptimistic miscalculation.

“Strategic Defeat”

By investing virtually all of its political capital in a third term for deeply unpopular Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Tehran alienated many of its former allies in the Shi’ite political and religious establishments.

The result was Maliki’s ouster and replacement by a compromise candidate, Haider al-Abadi, which the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Resistance’s President-Elect Maryam Rajavi both agreed was a “strategic defeat” for the regime – a rare point of consensus between the two rival leaders.

For this calamitous failure, Qassem Soleimani – once dubbed by the Guardian as “the Iranian general secretly running Iraq” – paid the price, reportedly being sidelined in favour of his deputy, Hossein Hamadani, as Tehran’s chief Iraq strategist.

The recently inaugurated Iraqi prime minister was far from being the mullahs’ preferred candidate for the role, and it is easy to see why.

Barely two months into his premiership, Abadi has earned plaudits for his resistance to pressure from the Iranian regime, and for his commitment to work with “all communities” to address “legitimate grievances.”

Sunni inclusion in the new Iraqi government has been facilitated in no small part due to a number of significant goodwill gestures, undertaken by Abadi – despite loud objections from within his own party – among which are the executive order to halt the indiscriminate bombardment of Sunni population centres, the “National Guard” initiative, an open-minded approach to the idea of a semiautonomous Sunni federal region, and the decision to drop Maliki’s trumped-up terrorism charges against prominent Sunni political figures.

With these conciliatory measures, Abadi has forged a national unity government by securing the constructive involvement of Sunni parliamentary bloc leaders Osama al-Nujaifi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, and won a glowing endorsement from Ayad Allawi, the statesmanlike former prime minister and cross-sectarian political heavyweight.

For their part, Sunni tribal and religious leaders – who have been in open rebellion against Baghdad since last December – signalled in mid-August their readiness to engage in dialogue with Abadi’s less belligerent administration, and duly reached a landmark accord on 28 October.

Other reforms – which have greatly diminished Tehran’s hegemony and mark a departure from the authoritarian Maliki years – include Abadi’s decisions to abolish the autocratic and unconstitutional “Office of the Commander-in-Chief,” to purge the armed forces of Maliki’s crony generals, and to disband seven Shi’ite militias.

For the Iranian regime, speaking through its Jomhuri-ye Eslami daily on  October 7, these “changes in the Iraqi government” – particularly steps taken to re-enfranchise the disaffected Sunni minority, over which Iran’s Shi’ite mullahs have little or no influence – represent the “implement[ation of] America’s colonial desires in the region,” which are inimical to Tehran’s own interests, and must therefore be mitigated.

This process of “mitigation” began in earnest on August 22 – less than two weeks after Abadi was nominated as Maliki’s successor – when Shi’ite gunmen stormed a Sunni mosque in Diyala Province and massacred 68 defenceless worshippers.

Although he did not name the perpetrators – since identified as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a militia said by the Guardian to be “controlled by Iran” – Mithal al-Alousi, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s defence and security committee, confirmed to Kurdish website BasNews on August 24 “that the massacre … was [intended] to delay the formation of the new Iraqi government.”

This bought the mullahs some time, provoking a temporary withdrawal of the Sunni blocs from coalition talks with their Shi’ite counterparts.

Concurrently, Tehran set about undermining Abadi by establishing an “Electronic Army” of online activists to defame him as a “British lackey” and “traitor to Shi’ites,” while Maliki loyalists sought to instigate anti-government demonstrations by distributing cash bribes to residents of Baghdad’s impoverished slums.

The intensity of the Iranian regime’s efforts to destabilise Abadi’s premiership has appalled even Tehran-friendly politicians, such as Shi’ite lawmaker and former Maliki confidante Izzat Shahbandar, who complained to Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on September 30 that the mullahs are “trying to put spokes in the wheels of Abadi’s government.”

In separate remarks, made to the same publication on October 10, Shahbandar further warned that “[Shi’ite] militias are in control of the Iraqi street today … Iran is providing [them with] material and moral support … [in order to achieve] participation in the decision-making process … [and ultimately] rule the country.”

The use of proxy militias as leverage against Baghdad has become the Iranian regime’s favourite tactic since early August, when it became clear to all that Maliki’s bid for a third term in office was a lost cause.

On October 18, this strategy bore fruit with the appointment of the Tehran-sponsored Badr Brigade’s Mohammed al-Ghabban as Iraq’s interior minister.

Abadi had strenuously opposed the nomination of Badr Brigade leader Hadi al-Ameri to head up the Interior Ministry, but was forced to concede the role to Ghabban when Badr representatives threatened to withdraw from the coalition and go into opposition – not something that Abadi could afford, since Ameri’s militia has held Diyala Province hostage since June 13.

Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban is now the most senior of four Badr Brigade officials in the Iraqi cabinet – the others are Human Rights Minister Muhammad Mahdi al-Bayati, Communications Minister Kazem Hassan Rashed and Municipalities Minister Abdul Karim Younis – of whom at least two, as the Washington Free Beacon revealed on September 17, are “active and paid members of Iran’s Qods Force.”

Even so, Tehran’s infiltration of its operatives and fellow-travellers into the Iraqi government is a far cry from what it accomplished during Maliki’s eight-year tenure, which is why the Shi’ite militias are of paramount importance to the mullahs.

“Revolutionary Guards of Iraq”

“The unforeseen ouster of Nouri al-Maliki represented a major defeat for the Iranian regime’s agenda in Iraq, squandering a decade-long financial and political investment in that country,” said Ali Safavi, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Safavi told the author:

“In Tehran’s calculation, this reduction in soft power must be compensated by an increase in hard power, so the Shi’ite militias – the Badr Brigade, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, among others – have become the regime’s number one strategic asset in Iraq. The rapid expansion and nationwide deployment of these organisations is a top priority for the mullahs, now more than ever.”

Acting in Tehran’s interests – and with the impunity afforded by their friends in the Iraqi government – these Shi’ite militias have wrought devastation on Iraq’s Sunni communities, whose expulsion from religiously mixed areas has been one of the mullahs’ primary objectives since the early days of the Iraq War.

In Baquba, Sunni corpses have been strung up from lampposts by the Badr Brigade; in Amerli, Kata’ib Hezbollah has ransacked and torched the homes of Sunni families; and in Latifiyya, whole Sunni neighbourhoods have been flattened with bulldozers driven by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militants.

This campaign of ethnic cleansing, which is directed by the Iranian regime, has been the subject of two detailed reports: “Iraq: Pro-Government Militias’ Trail of Death” and “Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq”– published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, respectively.

As Tirana Hassan of Human Rights Watch asserted in a November 3 article for Foreign Policy, “There is mounting evidence that Iraq’s Shi’ite militias are using the fight against the Islamic State as cover for a campaign of sectarian violence targeting Sunni Arab communities.”

Amnesty International has observed a similar trend, describing it in almost identical terms: “Shi’ite militias are ruthlessly targeting Sunni civilians on a sectarian basis under the guise of fighting terrorism,” the group said in a statement on October 13.

It can be difficult – if not impossible – to keep apprised of Iraq’s roughly 50 Shi’ite militias, which are known by many names, but there is one name that unites them all – that of former transport minister and sectarian warlord Hadi al-Ameri.

“Every [militia] battalion has a commander,” Abbas Abdulhussein, one such commander, explained in an interview with Kurdish news agency Rudaw on  October 1, “[but] all of the commanders are under the command of Hadi al-Ameri.”

A long-time adherent of the Khomeinist ideology, Ameri – whose “preferred method of killing,” according to a leaked cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, “involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries” – has reportedly been tasked by Qassem Soleimani with the establishment of an unofficial “Revolutionary Guards of Iraq.”

(Since a reliable litmus test of servitude to the Iranian regime is one’s stance toward the Iranian Resistance – which has maintained a sizeable presence in Iraq since 1986 – it is also worth noting that Ameri is alleged by senior Iraqi officials to have been responsible for a mortar attack on a refugee camp last December that killed four Iranian dissidents, and is presently engaged in looting the property of those same refugees.)

The nascent “Revolutionary Guards of Iraq” – led by Ameri and sponsored by the Qods Force – incorporates the vast majority of Iraq’s Shi’ite militiamen, but is also characterised by “massive reliance on transnational jihadists,” as terrorism analyst Phillip Smyth wrote in Foreign Policy on September 18.

In this regard, the author has previously exposed Tehran’s recruitment of 25,000 Indian Shi’ites for combat in Iraq, while Sam Westrop of the Gatestone Institute further revealed on September 3 that “the Iranian regime’s network of groups in Britain have called upon British Shi’ites to join the jihad against Sunni Islamist forces in Iraq.”

This smacks of desperation, said Hossein Abedini – a veteran official of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran whom the mullahs’ assassins tried to murder back in 1990 – in a conversation with the author:

“Iraq has always been of immense geopolitical importance to the Iranian regime. With the recent dismissal of Nouri al-Maliki by the Iraqi people, the mullahs see their dream of using that country as a springboard to … [regional domination] evaporating. They will resort to any and every criminal tactic not to lose Iraq.”

Indeed, although Tehran has managed to claw back control of Iraq’s Interior Ministry and a few other government departments, the “Revolutionary Guards of Iraq” project seems like a heavy-handed, last-ditch attempt to rule Iraq by force of arms.

In the face of a non-compliant prime minister in Baghdad, and an Iraqi population that is increasingly hostile to its expansionist agenda, the Iranian regime would do well to contemplate the words of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin: “You can build a throne of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long.” 


Jacob Campbell is a Senior Fellow of the Humanitarian Intervention Centre, Head of Research at Stand for Peace, and Co-Chairman of the Ashraf Campaign (ASHCAM). He tweets @JCampbellUKIPon Twitter.

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