June 27, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Iraq Strategy: Militia Support and Military Intervention

• Iran is playing a crucial role helping the beleaguered Iraq Security Forces blunt the advance of ISIS toward Baghdad

• Iran is providing Iraq with military aid and advice, as well as intelligence assets such as drones

• Iran implements its strategy in Iraq not only directly through assistance to the Maliki government, but through the Shi’a militias that Iran helped create and still, to some extent, controls.

Iran Comes to Maliki’s Rescue

Iran has displayed no hesitation in providing all manner of assistance to the beleaguered government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Iran’s immediate objective—which it shares with the US—is to prevent an Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)-led offensive from advancing into Shi’a majority areas and capturing Baghdad itself.

Iran diverges from the US in welcoming—although not necessarily insisting on—a third term as prime minister for Maliki, whom Iran views as a loyal and pliable ally. Iran apparently intends, over the longer term, to help the Maliki government retake the cities and areas lost to the ISIS offensive. The US has set no such objective, long term or otherwise, unless an inclusive Iraqi government is formed that can win back the allegiance of Sunni tribes and urban Sunnis currently supporting the ISIS offensive.

From broad consensus, most of the blame for the success of the ISIS offensive in June rests on Maliki’s monopolization of power for his Shi’a allies and efforts to marginalize Iraq’s Sunnis. The newly elected Iraqi Parliament will convene on June 30 to begin assembling a new government following the April 30 election. The US is sending up to 300 military advisors to assess the state of the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) and gather intelligence on ISIS positions and activities. However, the US has linked any significant additional military assistance to the formation of an inclusive new government, which presumably would not include Maliki.

Iran has placed no conditions on its aid and has set no specific limits on what it is prepared to do in Iraq. Its actions in the Iraq crisis suggest that Tehran’s policy is being guided by its national interests as set forth by hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the office of the Supreme Leader, who perceive that a military solution in Iraq is the best course of action. Immediately after ISIS-led forces seized Mosul on June 10 as the ISF collapsed, Iran sent to Baghdad its primary conduit, Revolutionary Guard Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasim Sulaimani to help Iraqi forces regroup. Subsequently, Iran has sent additional Quds Forces personnel as advisors, and has been flying in tons of military equipment each day, which US military officials describe as beyond light arms and ammunition. Iran also has begun launching intelligence-gathering drones from a Baghdad air base (Rasheed) that was used by the US during its presence in Iraq. Iran is said to have aircraft near the border ready to provide air support if necessary.

Iran’s Willing Volunteers in Iraq

As a major component of Iran’s foreign policy interests in helping Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad retain power, Iran orchestrated the intervention of its longtime protégé Hizballah to fight alongside strapped Syrian forces. Now, there’s no need to import Lebanese Hizballah fighters to Iraq because there’s already a large pool of manpower willing and able to stiffen the faltering ISF. This pool of manpower consists of Shi’a militias that the IRGC-QF played a major role in forming and still, to a large extent, funds and controls. Most of the militias ended their armed activity when US forces withdrew at the end of 2011. But, as the ISIS-led offensive drew closer to Baghdad, all of the Shi’a militias took their weapons out of storage and began to reorganize. Members of the militias have been fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, in part to protect Shi’a holy sites such as the Sayida Zaynab mosque, but have returned home to Iraq to help blunt the ISIS-led offensive. The militia ranks are further swelled by Shi’a youth answering the call from the senior religious figure in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to mobilize to defend against the ISIS-led offensive.

The militias have wide popularity in the Iraqi Shi’a community but also a record of Iran-supported violence. Several of the militias were responsible for attacks on US personnel and for killings and disappearances of Sunni civilians during the height of sectarian conflict in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. The revival of the armed militias gives the ISF access to desperately needed manpower but also raises fears of a return to sectarian warfare and of arbitrary exercise of power against civilians.

The Badr Organization, the militia arm of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was formed and trained by the IRGC during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. It later evolved into a political party and was part of Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition in the April 2014 elections. Another militia, the “Mahdi Army,” was formed in 2004 by Shi’a cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr to combat the US military in Iraq and was widely involved in sectarian killings of Sunnis in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army disbanded in 2008 to form a social charity organization, but press reports indicate that it is reconstituting its armed wing to assist the ISF.

Several militias are Mahdi Army offshoots. One of them, Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (League of the Family of the Righteous), reportedly was responsible for killing several US soldiers at Karbala in January 2007. It competed as a separate political entity in the April elections. Another, Kata’ib Hizballah (Hizballah Battalions), was named by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for past acts against US personnel in Iraq.


Any debate within Iran over Iraq strategy will likely be resolved in favor of hardliners who perceive that they can keep Maliki in power and ultimately make military gains against the ISIS-led insurrection. Iranian strategy will likely succeed in keeping ISIS forces out of Baghdad, but in the process will stoke renewed Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict as Shi’a militias gain influence. And, even with Iranian aid and manpower furnished by the militias, the government will be unable to recapture significant amounts of lost territory unless there is a broader political solution. The battle lines will likely settle into a de-facto separation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish-controlled areas.


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