“Iran is an empire once again at last, and its capital is Baghdad”
Ali Younesi, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Special Assistant on Ethnic and Religious Minorities Affairs
The eastern and southern regions of Iraq, with majority Shia populations, has always tended to fall within the orbit of Iran’s influence. During the Iran-Iraq war – 1980 to 1988 – Iran funded Shiite militias with the aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government.
The two countries ultimately ground each other into a stalemate but after the US invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Iraq, Iran’s ability to project power into Iraq has only grown exponentially to the point where they are the predominant force influencing internal affairs in Iraq (2015).
Following the Islamic State group’s blitz through Iraq and march toward Baghdad, Iranian-funded Shiite militias were remobilized. The most powerful of them was the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed political and military organization that has carried out revenge attacks against Sunnis throughout Iraq.
Rampaging Shiite Militias Inflame the Sectarian Divide
The Khorasani Brigade is just one of dozens of similar militias that are essentially running their own show in parts of the country. These Shiite militias are supplied with weapons and equipment from the central government in Baghdad, which is now being assisted by a U.S.-led military alliance in its fight against the Islamic State.
There is mounting evidence that Iraq’s Shiite militias are using the fight against the Islamic State as cover for a campaign of sectarian violence targeting Sunni Arab communities.
The Baghdad authorities have turned a blind eye to these militias’ crimes, while foreign governments have ignored the militias’ use of their military aid to pursue their campaign against Sunni Arabs.
That became an issue for the US, because such sectarian militias, generally loyal to Iran, killed and maimed hundreds of American troops during the Iraq war.
“It’s a little hard for us to be allied on the battlefield with groups of individuals who are unrepentantly covered in American blood,” Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as the US ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, told US News.
More recently the so-called Special Groups have played a pivotal role in halting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, after the Iraqi Army disintegrated.
“Iran and its Iraqi proxies have been carving out a zone of influence in eastern Iraq for well over a decade,” writes Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute. “And this zone, as [US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey] noted, is expanding.”
Qassem Suleimani & Iran’s QUDS Force
Iran’s military mastermind, Qassem Suleimani, has played pivotal roles in the deployment of Iranian assets against ISIS in Iraq. Suleimani was present during the successful siege of Amerli in August 2014, and he is on the frontlines of the battle against ISIS in Tikrit.
Suleimani is the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, putting him in charge of directing Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East.
His constant presence in various frontline battles serves to underscore the propaganda of an ascendant Iran with its forces battling for control throughout the region.
The Battle for Tikrit
Tikrit is under siege by a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iraqi army forces. The offensive is being overseen by Suleimani.
Should the forces liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran will have scored a significant propaganda win.
The seizure will place Iranian-backed forces on the road to ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, and humiliate Sunnis by having Iran take control of Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
Furthermore, the US has to sit back and watch. The image below by Ahmad Al-Rubaye shows Iraqi Shiite militia fighters after pushing back ISIS militants on September 3, 2014 on the road between Amerli and Tikrit in Iraq.
US Attitude to Suleimani & Iraq
“There’s just no way that the US military can actively support an offensive led by Suleimani” says Christopher Harmer, a former aviator in the United States Navy in the Persian Gulf.
Harmer, who is now an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, also told Helene Cooper of The New York Times that Suleimani is “a more stately version of Osama bin Laden.”
To assist in the siege of Tikrit and further military operations against ISIS, Iran has moved advanced rockets and artillery systems into Iraq, The New York Times reports.
These systems have introduced a new level of sophistication into the Iraqi warzone and could further inflame sectarian tensions as the artillery is often imprecise and has the potential to cause collateral damage.
“The Fajr-5 rocket and Fateh-110 missile launching systems are typically carried on a specially designed truck and are formidable additions to the Iraqi arsenal,” The Times notes. “Fajr-5 rockets, which are named after the Persian word for dawn, have a range of about 45 miles. Each is 20 feet long and weighs more than 2,000 pounds. The Fajr-5 warhead alone weighs 375 pounds … The Fateh-110 missile is even more capable than the Fajr-5.”
In November 2014, Iranian pilots bombed ISIS positions in Diyala, a religiously mixed Iraqi province that abuts Iran.
The presence of Iranian planes conducting airstrikes at the same time and in the same region as US military operations showed at least a deconfliction between the two countries’ militaries. (The same thing is happening in Syria.)
‘Export the Revolution’
Iran’s ambitions go far beyond Iraq and are taking them increasingly closer to the borders of the country’s regional adversaries.
Last month, Suleimani gloated: “We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.”
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains what Iran’s military mastermind means by this: “When he talks about exporting the Islamic Revolution, Suleimani is referring to a very specific template. It’s the template that the Khomeinist revolutionaries first set up in Lebanon 36 years ago by cloning the various instruments that were burgeoning in Iran as the Islamic revolutionary regime consolidated its power.
“As a result, Hezbollah remains the most comprehensive and developed export of the Iranian model … Now the Islamic revolutionary model is being reproduced in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen as well, by setting up those same structures.”
That is why Ali Khedery, who served as a special assistant to five US ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of US Central Command between 2003 and 2009, told The New York Times in December that Suleimani was “the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,” adding that “Iraq is not sovereign. It is led by Suleimani, and his boss,” Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”
Acknowledgements & References
- Michael Knights, Fellow at the Washington Institute
- Ralph Lengler, Experience Consultant, https://www.quora.com/Ralph-Lengler
- The Foreign Policy Group
- Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East
- Ali Mamouri, Columnist, Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse
- Shahir ShahidSaless, Political Analyst and Freelance Journalist
- Dmitri Rybak, TMG Corporate Services
- Charles Davis, intelography.com
- Business Insider
- Associated Press
- Getty Images
- Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images