Shi’ite fighters and Iraqi army members participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in Jurf al-Sakhar October 26, 2014.(Photo: © Reuters)
The unforeseen ouster of Nouri al-Maliki represented a major defeat for the Iranian regime’s agenda in Iraq. Tactics had to be switched.
BY JACOB CAMPBELL:
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 Timesrevealed.
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 Newsproudly 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.
Read more at Clarion Project
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.