A protester hits a poster showing the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo)

The "Special Groups", Iran’s malign influence in Iraq

A protester hits a poster showing the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo)

The protests in Iraq are the largest incident of civil unrest since the fall of Saddam Hussein. On 1 October 2019, a clash spread over the central and southern provinces of Iraq, to protest 16 years of corruption, unemployment, and inefficient public services call to overthrow the administration and to stop Iranian intervention in Iraq. 

The oligarchs and warlords were perceived to have taken control over Iraq. While the country produces more oil than the United Arab Emirates, the oil revenues were seen by protestors as failing to be spent on maintenance of hospitals and roads. A widely used slogan in this phase of the protests was: “We want a homeland”—reflecting a longing both for a sense of unity and for a self-determined life in dignity.

As a key component of Iran’s ongoing military force restructuring, Iran considered the use of the armed non state actor —or the proxy model— as an apt instrument to project Iranian power across multiple arenas. Iran’s proxies have transformed as a result of the Syrian civil.

war and the anti-Islamic State fighting in Iraq. More Iran-backed groups were formed, and each grew larger than in the pre-2011 period due to their adoption as government-paid fighters which gave them ranks and salaries equivalent to other branches of the Iraqi military. 

The PMF, the “Special Groups”

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic), formed in 2014 by a combination of executive orders and religious fatwa, is merely the latest example of this trend. Within the PMF—forming its core, in fact—are older pro-Iranian militias that were previously labeled “Special Groups” by the United States and designated as terrorist organizations in some cases. A broader range of Special Groups now exists than when the U.S. military left Iraq in 2011, underlining the diversification of actors that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) works within today’s Iraq.

After the anti-government protests to erupt in Iraq, Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, flew into Baghdad late at night and took a helicopter to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where he surprised a group of top security officials by chairing a meeting in place of the prime minister. Soleimani pledged to end the protests in Iraq in the same way they did with protests in Iran. As Iran’s leader Khamenei has control over Iraq, the resignation of the prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi didn’t resolve the issues. The arrival of Soleimani only resulted in  more violent clashes between government forces and protesters. The geographical spread of Iranian militias show to have complete control over Iraq and its resources, which have become an economic component feeding the Iranian economy. Unlike an Iraqi Army division, the Special Groups deploy detachments are active in many different areas of operation (AOs).

Baghdad City and the South of Iraq

The PMF was formed to fight the Islamic State. Their Commission maintains administrative offices in each Iraqi province providing a necessary link to wounded fighters and families, as well as a recruitment hub and contact point for off-duty members. The PMF also maintains two operational commands in southern Iraq: the PMF Rafidain Operations Command (in Maysan and Dhi Qar) and the areas, most real estate transactions and business enterprises are taxed by the dominant militias. 

Salah ad-Din province 

In this illustrative photo from July 1, 2016, members of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq paramilitary group take part in a Quds Day march in Baghdad, Iraq.
(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

The Khazali Network also known as (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq(AAH), League of the Righteous) is dominant in the area of northern Baghdad belts and southern Salah al-Din, including the cities Taji, Dujail, and Balad. Within this area, AAH’s Ali Haj Safa al-Saadi leads the PMF Salah al-Din Operations Command, nominally covering all of the Tigris River Valley inside Salah al-Din. In practice, AAH allows other militias their own sub-sectors of Salah al-Din. Camp Speicher, a large unused military base west of Tikrit, is dominated by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali, and Kata’ib Jund Al-Imam. Militias, who divert quantities of oil for trucking to Iran (and the Gulf ports) via the Kurdistan Region is in control of the oilfield ‘Alas’. AAH is the most dominant economic and political actor from the city of Samarra to Baghdad. In July 2018, Sunni tribal groups were forced to push back forcefully  on AAH intimidation and extortion in this area. AAH criminal brawls resulted in the total destruction by the looting of Iraq’s largest refinery and have even targeted U.S. contractors and stolen major equipment supporting the Iraqi F-16 program at the Balad air base. Rockets were assessed by U.S. government agencies to have been fired by AAH at the U.S. advisor sites in Taji on May 1, 2019. 

Southern Baghdad

Formally there are no operational PMF headquarters in Baghdad province, but in practice, the Special Groups have positioned substantial bases in Baghdad’s rural southern ‘belts.’ Kata’ib Hezbollah has carved out an exclusive principality in Jurf as-Sakr, 40 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. This area was liberated in late 2014 when it was celebrated as the first major liberation undertaken by the PMF. Since then, KH has strongly consolidated a “no-go” zone in which displaced Sunni residents cannot return and where only KH forces operate, complete with prisons holding over 1,000 illegal detainees. 

Supporters of Iraqi Hezbollah brigades marching in military uniforms step on a representation of an Israeli flag / AP

In March 2019, Iraqi air traffic control was instructed by KH to prevent U.S. drone overflights of Jurf as-Sakr, and as noted previously, it was from this site on May 14, 2019, that two explosive drones were launched toward Saudi Arabian oil pipeline pumping stations. According to Iraqi government contacts, KH has even acquired land use rights from the government, making its areas private property. Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali is trying to build out a similar stronghold in the southeastern Baghdad belts, between Suwayrah and Aziziyah, around 50 kilometers southeast of the capital. In 2018 a former Iraqi military base was improved with the aid of 27 mechanical diggers. Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali’s leader, the terrorist Shibl al-Zaydi, is one of the richest Special Group leaders, with broad involvement in legitimate business and property in Baghdad.

Mosul and Rural Nineveh

All PMF units in Nineveh are nominally supposed to answer to the PMF Nineveh Operations Command, dominated by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis appointee Ali Kadhim al-Musawi and his powerful deputy, Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali, operative in Hajj Ali Kerwei. In practice, Nineveh is another area where a patchwork of local and external militias are mostly self managing. The Nineveh-Syria border and connected wadis in central Nineveh are protected by a collection of smaller pro-Iran units such as Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda.  

KH and Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali advisors are occasionally visible. In Sinjar and Tal Afar, KH and Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali advisors work with PMF brigades Liwa al-Hussein and Lalish, which are each staffed by local Yazidis and Shi`a Turkmen. In the Nineveh Plains and eastern Mosul city, two local militias draw on support from al-Muhandis to refuse legal orders from the Iraqi government to redeploy away from Christian areas. One is Liwa al-Shabak/Quwat Sahl Nineveh, a PMF brigade led by Waad Qado, the other PMF brigade is Babiliyun, led by Raya Khaldani. Both leaders were sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. These militias have also dominated the tolling of trucks on the Erbil-Mosul highway and the large-scale scrap metal business in Mosul.

In this Tuesday, July 18, 2017, photo, Shiite volunteer fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade, an armed faction with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, train in their camp in Najaf, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq’s political, religious and military leaders are debating the future of the country’s powerful Shiite militias after defeating the Islamic State group in Mosul. (AP Photo/ Ali Abdul Hassan)

Al Anbar Governorate

This area refers to the swath of the Iraqi-Syrian border between Walid border crossing and Al-Qaim district. This area is of critical importance to the Special Groups because it contains the Baghdad Damascus highway crossing and the workaround tracks from the Akashat area to the highway north of Tanf. The Akashat sub-sector is guarded by PMF brigades. Within their areas, 122mm rockets are assessed by U.S. government agencies to have been fired by Iran-backed militias at the U.S. advisor site at Al-Asad airbase on February 2, 2019. Qasim Muslih, the commander of Liwa al-Taafuf, is also the head of the PMF Western Anbar Axis, the sector headquarters for all PMF operations along the border and in Rutbah.

The axis headquarters are based in Al-Qaim, and there is a sub-sector headquarters in Rutbah, on the Baghdad-Damascus highway. In collaboration, Liwa al-Tafuf and Kata’ib Hezbollah control all cross-border smuggling and trade. Kata’ib Hezbollah controls checkpoints on the border road and maintains the Husaybah Point of Entry, where it clears its military vehicles to enter and leave Iraq without being inspected by customs. 

Qasim Muslih, the commander of Liwa al-Taafuf. Alsadem.com

Badr’s Stronghold in Southern Diyala 

Shi‘ites from the Badr forces in Baghdad protest against the military intervention in Yemen on March 31, 2015 Karim Kadim—AP

The fifth major AO for PMF forces covers all the areas east of the Tigris River in Diyala, the Jallam desert east of Samarra and Tuz Khurmatu district and Kirkuk. Much of this area has been the preserve of the Badr Organization, which was originally created as a formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during the Iran-Iraq War. Led by Hadi al-Ameri, Badr remains the “first among equals” in this AO, particularly in southern Diyala. The PMF Diyala Operations Command is led by Talib al-Musawi, a Badr commander based at Camp Ashraf, which is the old encampment of the Iranian oppositionist Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization, Badr’s most bitter foes during the Iran-Iraq War.

Iran’s malign influence in Iraq 

Coming out of the heat of the war against the Islamic State, the Special Groups are growing in economic and political power and are attacking foreign entities on Iran’s behalf. At least a dozen attacks have been launched on U.S. targets in Iraq so far in 2019. Then on May 14, 2019, two Saudi oil sites were struck by long-range explosive drones launched from Jurf as-Sakr, the Baghdad base of the most powerful Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH). The leader of KH,  terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, is sought by both Interpol and Kuwaiti authorities. The coordinated drone attacks show KH’s power as the third major militant force alongside IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah in Iran’s “axis of resistance.” 

A few months ago leaked Iranian documents, contained in an archive of secret Iranian intelligence cables obtained by The Intercept and shared with the New York Times, confirmed how aggressively Tehran has worked to include itself into Iraqi affairs. 

Iran wasn’t an ally in the war against Isis, Iran is the new threat that invaded Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iraq’s large population, weak government, and powerful level of IRGC-QF penetration makes it the fastest-growing arena for Iran’s expansion of destructive influence in the Middle East. Iran has already shown that they have the ability to turn demonstrations in Iraq into a civil war to protect their interest and Khamenei’s ambition to dominate more of the Arabic territories. The question is not if Iran will act on these ambitions, but rather when they will do so? 

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