The China-Iran deal may be a stepping stone to increased ties between Tehran and Beijing, but the Gulf Arab states remain integral to Beijing’s economic projection in the Middle East.
This piece is part of a series about Iranian-backed Shia foreign fighters and their potential impact on regional security dynamics.
The U.S. Central Command recently declassified decade-old interrogation reports of Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which won 15 seats in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May. These reports shed new light on the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Iraqi Shia militias. But, so does a systematic survey of combat fatalities suffered by these militias in Iraq. Together they show how Tehran is trying to achieve its dual goals of continued Shia dominance in Baghdad while simultaneously securing dependency and loyalty of the militias to Tehran.
CENTCOM’s declassification and release of the Khazali files could be an attempt to stop the bid for a Cabinet office by the Iraqi militia leader, who the U.S. military has accused of leading an ambush that killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala in 2007. There is, however, no guarantee that the released documents will derail Khazali’s career, and a survey of open source material clearly demonstrates that there are many Khazalis in Iraq.
Tehran’s history of establishing Iraqi Shia militias dates back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Prior to the revolution, the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi provided considerable economic assistance to senior Shia clergy (sources of emulation), Shia shrines, and theological seminaries in Iraq. This in part explains why Iraqi Shia leaders, most of whom were based in Najaf, kept their distance from Iranian dissident Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was exiled to Iraq in October 1965. The Karbala-based Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, on the other hand, embraced Khomeini as a part of his challenge to the Shia clerical establishment in Najaf.
While the Pahlavi regime’s support to Iraqi Shias remained economic, Tehran provided extensive military support to the Kurdish insurgency against Baghdad, including direct participation of Iranian rangers in military operations against central government forces, until the signing of the Algiers Accord in 1975, which temporarily resolved the border dispute between Iran and Iraq.
Tehran’s position changed significantly after the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic. The shift was in part because of deterioration of Iran-Iraq relations as the Baath regime in Baghdad intensified suppression of Iraqi Shia political activism in the late 1970s and deported at least 50,000 (the real number was probably much higher) Iranian-Iraqi dual nationals to Iran. Relations further deteriorated as a constant stream of Iraqi Shia Islamic Dawa Party members, who sought political asylum in Iran, convinced Khomeini the Baath regime was on the verge of collapse. Within the revolutionary regime itself there was no shortage of individuals and power centers pushing for “export” of Iran’s revolution abroad. Overconfident after his victory in Iran, Khomeini needed little persuasion to call for the overthrow of the Baath regime and “exporting” the revolution to Iraq, which he did openly on August 9, 1980, 11 days before the Iraqi invasion of Iran.
In the wake of the Iraqi invasion, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps not only revived the Pahlavi regime’s military support to the Iraqi Kurdish insurgency, but also organized the IRGC Badr Corps. The unit was composed of Dawa Party members and Iraqi Shia prisoners of war, who shifted sides and volunteered to fight against Saddam Hussein’s forces. The Badr Corps was initially led by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, unofficial head of the community of Iranian-Iraqi dual nationals deported to Iran. By the mid-1980s, the IRGC entrusted the leadership to exiled Iraqi Shia leader Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim.
Old rivalries among Iraqi Shia did not go away because of the formation of the Badr Corps but survived and even flourished within the organization. According to Shahroudi, former Dawa Party members, who were originally from Najaf, formed a distinct faction of their own, while followers of Shirazi, who were originally from Karbala, organized a rival faction. Remarkably, the Najafis gravitated toward the mainstream of the Islamic Republic under then-Parliamentary Speaker Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then-President Ali Khamenei. The Karbala faction under Shirazi, on the other hand, aligned itself with Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. This was of utmost importance, since Mehdi Hashemi, brother of Montazeri’s son-in-law, was in charge of the Liberation Movements unit of the IRGC, the precursor to the extraterritorial operations Quds Force of the IRGC. As Montazeri lost his bid for succession after Khomeini, and the regime executed Hashemi in 1987, the Shirazis gradually distanced themselves from the Islamic Republic and shifted their allegiance to Iran’s regional adversaries.
Tehran’s experiences with managing intra-Iraqi Shia rivalries prepared the IRGC for management of future intra-Shia conflicts, and Iraqi nationals fought for Iran – and a few hundred were killed – in the war with Iraq. The Badr Corps even survived U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 and the armistice between Iran and Iraq, and the organization kept its garrisons close to the Iran-Iraq border. As a sign of the degree of Tehran’s control over the Badr Corps, it remained completely passive during the March-April 1991 Shia Iraqi rebellion in the wake of the Kuwait War. Tehran had declared its neutrality in the conflict and did not desire to be implicated by proxy
The moment of the Badr Corps arrived following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and collapse of the Baath regime: The Badr Corps returned to Iraq to reap the fruits of its liberation by infiltrating the refashioned political institutions of Iraq and by using Badr Corps militias to fill the vacuum after the Iraqi military was disbanded.
The intra-Shia rivalry continued, however, leading to the emergence of two competing Shia forces: the Badr Corps, which was under direct IRGC control, and the more decentralized Muqtada al-Sadr-led Mahdi Army, under indirect control of the IRGC. The nature of the complex relationship between the IRGC and the Mahdi Army has come to light with CENTCOM’s recent release of the Khazali interrogation reports from March 21 to May 6, 2007. And that relationship also provides insight into how the IRGC dealt with other Iraqi Shia militias.
According to the interrogation reports, Sadr and his then-deputy, Khazali, visited Iran, where they met a member of the IRGC’s Quds Force, referred to as Hajji Yusif, and the Quds Force chief commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani. In a separate document, the U.S. Department of the Treasury identified “Hajji Yusif” as Quds Force Brigadier General Abd al-Reza Shahlaei, who on September 16, 2008 was designated for “threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the Government of Iraq.”
In the course of the interrogations, Khazali explained that he traveled from Iraq to Iran through the southwestern Iranian city of Ahwaz approximately five times, and was, on some occasions, picked up from the border by Quds Force representatives. In Tehran, Khazali had frequent meetings with Hajji Yusif and their conversations were not limited to military affairs. According to the interrogation report:
Hajji Yusif began the discussion with detainee by explaining that it would be beneficial to the overall Shi’a cause if MAS [Muqtada al-Sadr] would take part in the Iraqi election process. He further explained that it would marginalize the Shi’a political process if MAS was seen as boycotting the election or if he came out publicly opposed to the elections. Hajji Yusif explained that it would be beneficial for the Shi’a people and organizations to put their support behind Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, and that included the Badr Organization, Hezb’ Dawa [the Dawa Party], and the Sadr trend. This would allow for a solid Shi’a voting block in order to ensure the Shi’a people gained complete control of the country and the government … The next day Hajji Yusif took detainee to meet with Ghasem Soleimani [Qassim Suleimani] … Soleimani pressed the same issues as Hajji Yusif had about MAS taking part in the election process. Detainee once again gave MAS’s stance concerning the elections, and being involved in an Iraqi government that he considered would be illegitimate. Soleimani responded with a counter proposal that MAS at least publicly be seen to support the process in Iraq but do what he wished in private, or at least present himself as an independent or neutral rather than in opposition to the election.
It was not just Khazali who visited Iran:
Hajji Yusif traveled to Al-Najaf in approximately late 2003 or early 2004 to personally set up the specifics of transferring money and other forms of aid to the Sadr trend and to MAS personally … The amount of money sent directly to MAS varied at times, but usually it was between $750,000 and 1,000,000 United States Dollars (USD). However, as much as 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 USD has been sent for certain special problems or needs. The frequency of money sent also varied at times. Money was usually received every month as a rule, but sometimes it was a shorter time period or longer occasionally.
Hajj Yusif also appears to have been in charge of arms transfers from Iran to Iraq according to Khazali:
On the Iranian side, Hajji Yusif was the primary contact for weapons traffic, providing substantial assistance in the Ahwaz and Elam [Ilam] (phonetic) areas. Detainee was not responsible for Hajji Yusif or any other Iranian who works for him. Hajji Yusif or one of his subordinates makes direct contact with one of the individuals on the Iraqi side of the border and they agree on a certain day on which some quantity of weapons will be brought into Iraq. The weapons are always moved by weapons smugglers – not directly from Iran. Iran always uses weapons smugglers so that Iran cannot be held accountable.
Khazali also discussed the IRGC’s careful support for competing Iraqi Shia militias and even encouraged the emergence of splinter factions. In this light, it is not surprising that two main militias further splintered into smaller groups, including Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada as an offshoot of the Badr Corps and Asaib Ahl al-Haq from the Mahdi Army.
But it was not just the Shia militias that were trying to fill the power vacuum in post-Baathist Iraq, and before long, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was expanding its territory from Syria into Iraq. By June 2014, ISIL posed a direct threat to Baghdad, which provoked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s June 13, 2014 religious edict calling for defending Iraqi cities and participating in the counteroffensive against ISIL.
Splintered Iraqi militias unified under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces. A systematic open source survey of PMF combat fatalities in Iraq provides some insights into their operations and performance. A total 2,526 PMF fighters were reported killed in combat in Iraq from March 15, 2013 to September 4, 2018. The actual scope of the losses is certainly higher, and this number must be considered as an absolute minimum.
Shia Iraqi Combat Fatalities in Iraq August 2012 – September 2018
Among the 2,526 PMF combat fatalities in Iraq, the place of birth of 2,133 fighters is known. Most of the fighters who died in Iraq were born in Basra governorate, with 810 identified fatalities, followed by 273 fatalities of fighters born in Babil governorate, and 175 fatalities of fighters born in Baghdad governorate. In contrast, no PMF fatalities were reported of people born in the governorates of Erbil, Halabja, or Sulaymaniyah.
Iraqi Shia Combat Fatalities in Iraq by Birth Place August 2012 – September 2018
By far, the majority of the PMF casualties were fighters killed in combat in Saladin (879), Anbar (581), and Nineveh (401).
Iraqi Shia Combat Fatalities and Place of Death in Iraq August 2012 – September 2018
Even during the fiercest phases of the fight against ISIL, there was no evidence of the militias surrendering real command and control to the PMF leadership. Each unit fought under its own commander; Khazali, Hadi al-Amiri, Akram al-Kabi, and other commanders were not subject to the Baghdad government’s control. Suleimani was in charge of the war effort.
Iraqi Shia Militias, Chief Commanders, and Combat Fatalities in Iraq and Syria
August 2012 – July 2018
|Militia||Chief commander||Combat fatalities in Syria||Combat fatalities in Iraq||Total combat fatalities|
|Ansar-Allah al-Owfia||Heydar al-Gharavi||2||2|
|Asaib Ahl al-Haq||Qais al-Khazali||19||1||20|
|Badr Organization||Hadi al-Amiri||20||1||21|
|Ferqat al-Abbas al-Qatalia||4||4|
|Habib Ibn Mazaher al-Assadi Army||1||0||1|
|Harakat al-Nujaba||Akram al-Kabi||192||61||253|
|Hezbollah (Iraq)||Hassan al-Sari||1||1|
|Imam Hussein Unit||2||2|
|Kataib Hezbollah||Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis||12||18||30|
|Kataib Imam Ali||Shibl al-Zaydi||11||11|
|Kataib Jond al-Imam||8||8|
|Kataib Seyyed al-Shohada||Abu Ala al-Walai, Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani||88||31||119|
|Leva Kafil Zeynab||1||1|
|Leva al-Mokhtar||Wathiq al-Battat (until December 20, 2014)||4||4|
|Saraya al-Jahad va al-Bana||1||1|
|Saraya al-Khorasani||Ali al-Yaseri||7||7|
|Saraya Ansar al-Aqidah||Jalal al-Din al-Saghir||4||4|
|Tashkil al-Hussein al-Saer||2||2|
|Militia affiliation not known||2,129||5||2,134|
Data drawn from multiple open sources
While Colonel Joel Rayburn, author of “Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance,” considers the fragmentation of the Shia militias as a “colossal blunder by Soleimani and his deputies,” it could alternatively be a calculated risk and a part of Iran’s strategy for Iraq: Commanders of Iraqi Shia splinter militias are competing for Tehran’s largesse, which can potentially secure them supremacy in Iraq. The fragmented Iraqi Shia polity and the intra-Shia competition on the other hand allows Tehran to maintain its influence over Iraqi politics and security. Iraqi Shia militias constantly compete with each other for Tehran’s favor rather than follow orders from Baghdad. This in turn makes Iran a central player in Iraqi politics.
The Islamic Republic has also every reason to be content with its burden sharing arrangement with the rivaling Iraqi Shia militias: A survey of Persian-language reports on funeral services for Iranian nationals killed in combat in Iraq shows only 43 Iranian losses in Iraq since June 2014. As low as this number appears, it may be fairly accurate, since there was no shortage of Iraqi Shia volunteers in the fight against ISIL. The Shia militias were in need of Iranian officers to lead them in combat and not foot soldiers. This is reflected in the low number of Iranian fatalities in Iraq, and has likely been considered an acceptable price for Tehran in return for influence in Iraqi politics.
The Islamic Republic’s approach has hitherto secured the dual goals of continued Shia dominance in Baghdad while simultaneously securing the dependency and loyalty of the militias. It remains to be seen if CENTCOM’s release of the Khazali interrogations and perhaps more revelations of the close relationship between Tehran and its agents of influence in Iraq turn the Iraqi public against Iraqi Shia militia leaders and weaken Tehran’s hand.
The IRGC’s military exercises are little more than ineffective political propaganda.
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