Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

Nouri al Maliki has ruled out the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of 2011, saying his new government and the country’s security forces were capable of confronting any remaining threats to Iraq’s security, sovereignty and unity.  Maliki also said that “he wouldn’t allow his nation to be pulled into alignment with Iran, despite voices supporting such an alliance within his government.”

Thus does Maliki imagine fairy tales.  In what is being called the Battle of Palm Grove, the ISF proved just how problematic their tactical disadvantage is in fire fights.

Despite the fact that the U.S. military insists Iraqi security forces are ready to handle their own security as American troops withdraw from Iraq, one U.S. commander says glaring mistakes were made by Iraqis during a recent battle.

Lt. Col. Bob Molinari of the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii says the fight in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, now being called the Battle of the Palm Grove, involved hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, U.S. ground troops and American fighter planes dropping two 500-pound bombs — all to combat just a handful of insurgents. And in the end, the enemy got away.

Molinari says the troubles in the palm grove started when local residents reported that insurgents affiliated with al-Qaida had assembled there to build bombs. An Iraqi commander led a unit of Iraqi soldiers in to investigate.

Molinari says Iraqi commanders from a total of seven different units showed up at the scene. Even the minister of defense was there. Molinari says too many commanders meant no coherent plan of action.

Iraqi soldiers were sent into the grove, in single file, each headed by an officer, Molinari says. The insurgent snipers would simply take aim at the officer who was leading each column.

“It was a matter of, as soon as the officers went down, the [Iraqi soldiers] went to ground. They didn’t know what to do next,” Molinari says.

Concerning air space sovereignty, Iraq will be a protectorate of the U.S. for the next decade, and would be vulnerable without U.S. air support and defense.  U.S. control and influence is ebbing, and “even the Green Zone, once an outpost of Americana in a chaotic Iraq, is no longer a US zone of influence. The United States handed over control to Iraqi security forces last June, along with responsibility for issuing the coveted badges that allow access to the walled enclave, relinquishing the ability to control who may come and go.”

But if the diminution of U.S. influence is proceeding apace, the increase in Iranian influence is matching it.  Michael Knights has authored an important analysis in the West Point’s November Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, entitled The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq.  Selected quotes are provided below.

As the unclassified Iraqi government Harmony records collated by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point illustrate, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been in the business of sponsoring Iraqi paramilitary proxies for 30 years, practically the government’s entire existence. In some cases, the same Iraqi individuals run like a thread throughout the entire story, from Islamic terrorists, to exiled anti-Saddam guerrillas, to anti-American Special Group fighters in post-Ba`athist Iraq. Many of the historical patterns of Iranian support to Iraqi proxies hold true today …

The armed factions that make up the Special Groups have passed through significant changes in the last two years, and they continue to evolve. The government security offensives of spring 2008 caused considerable damage to Iranian-backed networks, and many Special Group operators fled to sanctuaries in Iran. Since the summer of 2009, these groups have been allowed breathing space to recover and begin to reestablish their presence in Iraq.

There are many reasons why recovery has been possible. In June 2009, the U.S.-Iraq security agreement ended the ability of U.S. forces to operate unilaterally in Iraq’s cities, where much of the fight against the Special Groups has been conducted. The U.S. military thereafter required an Iraqi warrant and Iraqi military cooperation to undertake raids against the Special Groups. In the extended lead-up to Iraq’s March 2010 elections, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to win favor with other Shi`a factions by using his direct operational control of Iraq’s Counterterrorism Command to place a virtual embargo on such raids. Lacking the judicial evidence to hold Special Group detainees transferred to the Iraqi government, and facing pressure from Shi`a groups, the government began to release Special Group prisoners as soon as they were transferred to Iraqi custody by the United States.

Knights goes on to detail the various manifestations of Iranian meddling, including both groups and tactics.  He ends with this warning.

The political situation in Iraq will have a significant effect on the further evolution of Special Groups. If, as seems likely, Moqtada al-Sadr joins key Iranian-backed parties such as Badr in the new government, many elements of PDB, AAH and KH will probably be drawn into the security forces as Badr personnel were in the post-2003 period. Some types of violence (such as rocketing of the government center in Baghdad) may decline, while targeted attacks on U.S. forces would persist or even intensify due to the new latitude enjoyed by such groups. Kidnap of Western contractors or military personnel has been the subject of government warnings during 2010 and could become a significant risk if U.S.-Iran tensions increase in coming years. Sectarian utilization of the Special Groups to target Sunni nationalist oppositionists could become a problem once again. If Iraqi government policy crosses any “red lines” (such as long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, rapid rearmament or anti-Iranian oil policy), the Special Groups could be turned against the Iraqi state in service of Iranian interests, showering the government center with rockets or assassinating key individuals.

And as Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer notes, Sadr has indeed joined Maliki in forming a new government.

Just before leaving for Baghdad last week, I spoke by phone to my Iraqi driver Salam, who was recently released from prison.

What he told me haunted me during my visit. It made me question what kind of Iraqi regime will emerge after U.S. troops exit by the end of 2011, and what sort of long-term relationship can develop between Washington and Baghdad.

Salam spent two years in jail on false charges brought by relatives of Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. These militiamen, who were killing Salam’s neighbors, were arrested after he tipped U.S. troops. When American soldiers left Baghdad, the killers used contacts inside Iraq’s Shiite-dominated army to get Salam – and his two teenage sons – jailed.

The three were finally freed by an honest judge. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has now made a political deal with the Sadrists in order to finally form a government, nine months after Iraqi elections. The deal, brokered by Iran, required that large numbers of Mahdi Army thugs – like those Salam fingered – be freed from prison. This deal resurrects a fiercely anti-American group that battled U.S. forces until it was routed in 2008.

As I have noted for more than two years, the Status of Forces Agreement under which U.S. troops have operated, combined with the precipitous decline in U.S. presence, has created a power vacuum in Iraq into which Iran has rushed.

Renegotiation of the SOFA, along with the realization by Maliki that his troops cannot secure Iraq, would be helpful, but the real need of the moment is regime change in Iran.  That may be Iraq’s greatest hope, although not in time for the Christians.



  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Hi, Cap’n- I don’t think your argument follows here. Iran is next door, and has friendly relations with much of the Shiite establishment of Iraq. That is not news. Yet the prime minister feels it necessary to publicly disavow any Iranian meddling in official Iraqi actions. That seems like a strong sign that such meddling, though common enough, is unpopular.

    Elections continue to be held, and Al Maliki’s own power stems largely from his ability to squelch the militias, which are currently mostly quiescent. So it is not clear that Iran has “rushed” into any power vacuum. A civil war may yet come- that is not out of the question. But insofar as the government continues to stand, there is no new evidence of Iraq’s government being specially infiltrated by or beholden to Iran. What we are witnessing is the same old same old, as has been going on under the radar since our invasion. For all the meddling, Iraq is very nationalistic, and hardly sees Iran as some kind of great model of governance or stability, even from a Shia perspective.

    The loss of US influence is immaterial, your tiny anecdote notwithstanding. The US is going to exit in any case, sooner or later, either at the behest of a popular insurgency, or quietly as we are doing. Take your pick. As you say, we would certainly be happier with Iran switched to a more free and democratic country- then it would have even MORE influence in Iraq!

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    The Iranian Mullahs are unpopular too. So what? Makes no difference. Maliki’s power doesn’t stem from his ability to squelch the militias. It currently stems from Iran (who brokered the deal, without which there would still be no government, or perhaps Allawi would be in charge).

    You have missed the point if you think that I am arguing that there has been an absence of Iranian influence in Iraq. I have argued for four years to treat Iraq as a regional war (including Iran). What’s different is that the SOFA has allowed a resurgence of Iranian power into Iraq after moderate to significant losses in 2007 and 2008.

    Um … just as I said it would.

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You are currently reading "Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq", entry #5923 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Iraq,Iraq SOFA,Quds Force and was published December 29th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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