Iran’s bid for power in Iraq

Amid the recent upheavals in the Arab world, one country has largely escaped attention. That country is Iraq. However, the absence of anything attributable to the ‘Arab Spring’ within its borders should not lead to the conclusion that all is tranquil in the land of the two rivers. As the United States prepares to withdraw, Iran and its regional allies and proxies are ramping up their campaign to impose the look of defeat on the American withdrawal from Iraq. This is part of a larger, ongoing effort by Iran to dominate the politics of Iraq in the post-US era. The Lebanese Hizballah movement, as a client of Iran, is playing a central role in the developing Iranian strategy in Iraq.

The Iranians and their Hezbollah clients are pursuing a strategy which resembles that applied successfully in Lebanon. It involves the creative combination of political and military activity. The intention is the acquisition of power, in the largest Shia-majority Arab state.

The remaining 47,000 US combat troops are set to leave Iraq on December 31, 2011, according to the existing State of Forces Agreement. American officials are concerned at the ability of the Iraqi forces to effectively ensure security. They are therefore currently attempting to convince the Iraqi government to allow some troops to stay past the deadline.

This has become a political issue in Iraq, with patriotic credit going to forces most vociferously opposing the extended stay of US forces.

In this context, the last months have seen a notable uptick in attacks on US forces by Shia paramilitary groups linked to Iran and Hezbollah.

Fourteen US soldiers died in enemy attacks in Iraq in the month of June. For the sake of perspective, in January and February, there were no US combat deaths caused by Shia organizations in Iraq. In March, there was one such death, In April there were four.

The Iranian-backed Kta’eb Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades) claimed responsibility for the attacks. The American authorities find this credible because of the type of weaponry used. The bloodiest attacks in June involved the use of improvised rocket-assisted mortar systems (IRAMs) – a type of weaponry particularly associated with the Shia groups. These primitive but effective weapons consist of explosives packed into canisters, propelled by Iranian produced rocket systems.

The Hezbollah Brigades is the most active of the small, armed Shia groups utilized by Iran as tools of policy in Iraq. The organization’s founder, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (Jamal al-Ibrahimi), is a former close adviser to Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. ‘Al-Muhandis’ is also a former member of the Shia Islamist Dawa Party, and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, in which he fought on the Iranian side.

An additional group worthy of mention is the Asaib al-Haq (League of Justice) organization.

This latter group is a result of a split-off from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. However, both the Hezbollah Brigades and the Asaib al-Haq are today considered to be under the direct control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Qods Force. Al-Sadr himself is today also openly aligned with Iran. Through involvement with these groups, Iran thus maintains both a terrorist and paramilitary capacity in Iraq, and a ‘legitimate’, mass political movement (which itself has an armed wing – the Jaish al-Mahdi).

The Lebanese Hezbollah movement has been intimately involved in the training of Shia paramilitaries on behalf of Iran, since the early days of the US occupation of Iraq. As Arabic-speakers, the Lebanese have an obvious advantage over Iranians in operating relatively inconspicuously in Arab environments.

The US Justice Department is currently preparing to prosecute Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative who masterminded Hezbollah’s training of the Iraqi Shia groups prior to his capture in mid-2007 in Iraq. Daqdud, a veteran operative, previously commanded Hassan Nasrallah’s security detail, and ran a special operations unit.

According to US Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, Daqduq was tasked by Iran and the Hezbollah leadership to organize Shia terror groups in Iraq “in ways that mirrored how Hezbollah was organized in Lebanon.” Daqduq organized the training of groups of recruits in Iran, where they were instructed in the use of IEDs, mortars, rockets and small arms, and in the conducting of intelligence and kidnapping operations.

In tandem with this clandestine activity, Iranian backing of the al-Sadr movement has delivered political dividends. Sadr was able to decide who could form a government in Iraq after the 2010 elections, because neither of the two main blocs scored an absolute majority. Having chosen to back Nouri al-Maliki, he remains able to block legislation. Sadr has threatened to return to the path of violence if US troops do not depart on December 31. His Mahdi Army, while currently not openly active, retains its weapons. Sadr himself remains resident in Iran. In the meantime ‘Sadrists’ are taking up positions in ministries associated with social services, health and transportation.

So Iran is pursuing a joint political and paramilitary strategy in Iraq. This involves the establishing and/or sponsoring of militant groups, based on the majority Shia community. These groups commit themselves to the Iranian style of government, and engage in civilian political, open military or clandestine terror activity according to the need of the moment.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It ought to, because it is the means by which Iran gained power in Lebanon, through the use of its proxy, Hezbollah. (The latter, as we have seen, is playing an important role in the strategy in Iraq.)

The strategic stakes are far higher in Iraq than they ever were in Lebanon, of course. Control of tiny Lebanon brought the Iranians to the Mediterranean and gives them a frontline against Israel. No small things. But control of Iraq would mean control of the largest Shia majority Arab state, a country replete with Shia holy shrines, and with oil resources. It is also a country that borders Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival.

Teheran is in no hurry. But its bid for power in Iraq has begun.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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