In recent weeks several Iranian agents have been captured trying to cross the border into Iraq. At the same time, Iraqi and U.S. forces continue to arrest dozens of Iranian-backed Shiite militants known as Special Groups. After the government’s security operations in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan province, much of Iran’s military network in Iraq was broken up, and many Special Groups fighters fled to Iran. Now it appears that Tehran is attempting to re-establish its lines of communication and weapons’ routes, and slip in gunmen. Iran has an extensive military policy with regards to Iraq, but it is only one part of their stance towards the country.
For the first time in over a year, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, ten in total, have been captured within Iraq. The last incident occurred on October 27 when police in eastern Basra captured an Iranian agent trying to infiltrate the country. Before that, two Iranians were intercepted south of Kut in Wasit province on October 24. One Iranian was killed and the other was arrested. It was reported that they were in Iraq to carry out a military operation. Four days earlier, three more Revolutionary Guards were caught in that same area. Finally, on October 18, four others were detained near Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyala in northern Iraq.
Others probably made their way safely into the country. Back in mid-September for example, the provincial police chief of Dhi Qar province warned that Iranian agents were coming into Iran in small groups. He said that most were coming through Maysan, and then moving west into Dhi Qar.
At the same time, the Special Groups are trying to re-enter Iraq and carry out attacks. Over six-dozen Special Groups fighters have been killed or captured in October. The Institute for the Study of War believes that several well coordinated, and high casualty attacks in September were the work of Special Groups operatives. On September 24 a group of gunmen attacked a National Police unit in the village of Dulaimat, Diyala province. Twenty-seven police and eight Sons of Iraq fighters were killed. In another attack in the Rusafa district of Baghdad, on September 28, ten civilians were killed and thirty wounded. In both cases, Al Qaeda in Iraq was the main culprit, but the Institute believes that the sophistication of the incidents could be the work of Special Groups operatives instead. They might also be responsible for attacks and assassinations of government officials and members of the Sons of Iraq. In August it was reported that Iraqis were being trained in three camps in Iran for just such operations. A U.S. intelligence officer said that they were supposed to return to Iraq in October, which is exactly when this spate of Iranians has been captured.
The last time an Iranian operative was arrested in Iraq was on September 20, 2007. That was when U.S. forces raided an Iranian trade delegation in Sulaymaniya in Kurdistan, and arrested Mahmud Farhadi, one of three commanders of the Revolutionary Guard’s Ramazan Corps. He is probably the highest-ranking Iranian in U.S. custody. The Ramazan Corps was first established in the 1990s during the Saddam period to work with friendly Iraqi Shiites such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) to undermine the government. In turn, the Ramazan Corps is part of the Qods Force that has ultimate command of all Iranian activities within Iraq.
Prior to that, on January 11, 2007 the U.S. arrested five Iranians in Irbil, Kurdistan (14) who were part of the Iranian Liaison Office there. The Americans were actually after Mohammed Jafari, the deputy of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence division, that day. They were on an official visit to meet with Kurdish authorities, and met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani before departing for the Irbil airport where the U.S. tried to intercept them. They were stopped however by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, and the two Iranian officials made it back to Tehran.
Before that, in December 2006 the U.S. captured two Qods Force agents in the SIIC compound in Baghdad. One was Brigadier General Mohsen Chirazi and Colonel Abu Amad Davari. Chirazi was the third in command of the Qods Force. Both were later released because of pressure by the SIIC.
These recent arrests of Revolutionary Guards is probably only the tip of the iceberg of a larger effort to move Iranian and Special Groups agents back into the country. Many of its networks were broken up, and need to be rebuilt. Another goal seems to be the undermining of the Iraqi provincial elections that are scheduled to happen by the end of January 2009 by eliminating officials.
Overall, Iran has a three-part policy in Iraq. One is to support friendly parties and politicians in the Iraqi government and parliament to try to shape the country’s politics. They also want to establish extensive cultural and economic ties between the two countries. Last, Iran backs various armed Shiite groups to tie down the U.S., and protect against a possible attack on Tehran. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point recently released an extensive review of Iran’s role in Iraq since the Iranian Revolution. It noted that the United States focuses almost exclusively on Iran’s military policy, of which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force Ramazan Corps is in the lead. At the same time, the Center’s report noted that America tends to ignore Iran’s political ties with Iraqis unless it turns nefarious. Thus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno warned on October 13 that Iran was trying to bribe Iraqi politicians to stop the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would legalize the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq after December 31, 2008 when their United Nations mandate expires. The close ties that the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, members of the Dawa party, and the Kurdish parties still hold with Iran however, are largely overlooked. Thus, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani went to Tehran first in October to discuss the SOFA, where he also promised to work for the release of the Iranians captured in the January 2007 raid on Irbil. It was only afterwards that Barzani headed to Washington D.C. to talk to the Americans. Iran has also become Iraq’s largest trade partner. This is exactly the type of influence Iran cherishes.
Unlike the United States that wants a specific type of end state, the Iranians want to be able to shape Iraq’s internal processes so that it will benefit Tehran in any situation. Supporting Special Groups is important, but plays a supporting role to the much more important goal of carrying influence within Iraq’s government, economy, and society. So far, Iran has been largely successful in all three prongs of its policy. It provides most of Iraq’s consumer goods, is the main source of tourism, holds strong religious sway through the holy city of Qom, is friends with most of the ruling coalition that maintains Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, and gives aid and training to a vast number of Shiite gunmen willing to sow chaos in the country, so that Iraq might turn to Iran to stop it. Iraqi nationalism is probably the only thing that can truly stem the growth of Iran’s role in Iraq. While that is emerging, it still hasn’t stopped Iraqis from buying Iranian goods, or taking Iranian money from tourists, or traveling to Tehran whenever there is a political crisis.
For more on Iran’s role in Iraq see:
Continued Reports of Iranian and Hezbollah Training of Shiite Militants
Going After Iran’s Supply Lines In Iraq
Hezbollah’s Role In Iraq
Iran-Iraq Agree Upon New Free Trade Zones
Iran-Iraq Trade Agreement
Iranian Influence In Iraq Update I
Iran’s Influence In Iraq Update II
Overview of Iran’s Influence In Iraq
Vali Nasr: Iranian Policy At A Crossroads
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