Claims that Iran is training Shiite militants in Iraq are common. The last occurred in August and September 2008. In that first month, a U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force and Lebanon’s Hezbollah were training Iraqis to carry out attacks. London's Asharq Alawsat also interviewed a former Iranian official who said that Iran and Hezbollah were assisting Iraqis in Basra, Amarah in Maysan province, Najaf, and Baghdad before the government’s crackdown on the Sadrists in March 2008. Towards the end of August, Abu Dhabi's The National interviewed two Mahdi Army fighters who said they went to Lebanon for training by Hezbollah. Finally, in September, the head of the provincial police in Dhi Qar warned that Iranian backed Special Groups were infiltrating from Iran in small groups to renew violence in Iraq. These were all similar to previous stories of their kind. In October the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released a paper analyzing Iran’s role in Iraq from the time of the Iranian Revolution to the present. Part of the report documented the training regime that Tehran created for Iraqis. It was based upon dozens of interrogations of captured militiamen who had gone through the process. One major finding was that the Iraqis accepted the Iranians’ help as a marriage of convenience rather than for ideological reasons as they generally disliked the Persians and their religious doctrine. Second, the goal of the Iranians was to influence Iraqi politics and expel the Americans.
Tehran supports various Shiite groups within Iraq. Before the U.S. invasion, they helped form the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) in Iran in the 1980s. Its Badr Brigade was created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and was an official wing of its Qods Force. Many members of the Dawa Party were also in exile in Iran and received aid. Both groups received training from Hezbollah as well. They all shared a common hatred of Saddam Hussein, and Iran maintains strong contacts with all of them now that they are the ruling parties in Iraq. Shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iran also began reaching out to Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. He proved too temperamental, so Iran began moving towards local militia leaders and Sadrist splinter groups that became known as Special Groups.
For militants that were interested, they could travel to Iran for military training. There, Tehran set up various levels of instruction. It was general knowledge amongst militiamen that these opportunities existed for them. Most trainees came from the cities of Najaf, Nasiriyah, Kut, Amarah, Basra, areas of Diyala province, and Sadr City in Baghdad. Iran demanded that all who came had to read and write. One major route to Iran was through Amarah in Maysan province. Iraqis could cross the border either legally or illegally. Once across, they met Iranians who took them to Ahvez or Kermansah where they would stay in safe houses. They would then travel to Tehran by plane with tickets provided by the Qods Force. Once in the capital, they stayed in apartments where their initial training would begin. They would then move to training camps outside of Tehran run by Iranian soldiers. There were four places where this would occur, Ahvaz, Elam, Qom, and Tehran. Afterwards they would travel back to Iraq through the same route.
In terms of the actual training there were three levels from basic to advanced. The basic training took up to 20 days on average, and consisted of work with small arms, mortars, and IEDs. The second level was Special Forces training, which lasted over 30 days. This could happen in both Iran and Lebanon, and consisted of more advanced weapons training. The highest-level was for Iraqis with leadership potential. This did not start until 2007. Iraqis were taught how to plan and carry out attacks, organize units, keep track of weapons, etc. This option was only offered to Iraqis who had already been to Iran once before. The Iranians were also very selective in who they picked. Another option increasingly used was to create Iraqis capable of training others inside of Iraq rather than have them travel to Iran. This allowed for a level of deniability.
Hezbollah also offered assistance. The Lebanese group had been connected to some Iraqis for years. In the 1980s for example, they assisted the Dawa Party in carrying out a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. Hezbollah’s training occurred in both Iran and Lebanon. Many Iraqis went to Iran first, and then headed to Syria, and then Lebanon, but there were also examples of going directly there. Hezbollah offered three to four week courses. Besides weapons classes there was also intelligence training. According to interrogations, the Iraqis preferred the Lebanese far more because they were Arabs and treated them much better than the Iranians. There were also Hezbollah operatives working inside Iraq who were under the leadership of Ali Musa Daqduq until his capture in 2007. He received up to $3 million a month from the Qods Force to organize Iraqis.
Overall, the most significant finding of the Combating Terrorism Center report was the fact that this was a marriage of convenience between the two sides. Iran provided religious training to the Iraqis, which was generally rejected. The Sadrists especially felt that the Iranians were trying to sway them to their leadership. More importantly, many Iraqis also felt like the Iranians treated them with little respect. The Iranians too were aware of this divide. The Iraqis only went to get training, not because they believed in Iranian ideology, which they considered foreign.
The Iranians were also using the Iraqis. They wanted the Mahdi Army and Special Groups to undermine the U.S., and force them to leave because the American presence was seen as a direct threat to Tehran. The Iranians would also raise and lower the amount of supplies given to the Iraqis at important times to shape events there. In the run up to the 2005 provincial and national elections for example, Iran tried to temper attacks by Shiites, and pressured Moqtada al-Sadr to end his uprising so that the voting could take place. This allowed Iraq’s political allies the SIIC and Dawa to come to power. The violence Tehran helped create also made Iraq’s government turn to Tehran to mediate and stop it. This happened during the fighting in Basra and Sadr City earlier this year. This military policy, also misdirected the U.S. who focused upon cracking down on Shiite militiamen, and the Iranian networks that supported them rather than Iran’s political allies who ran much of the government. Overall, the Combating Terrorism Center paper believes that Iran’s main goal is not to control Iraq, but to have influence there so that whatever happens, they can benefit. Backing Iraqi militants is only one part of this stance, aimed at supporting its larger political policy of making sure friendly Iraqis are in the government. Tehran has largely been successful in achieving these goals.
Agence France Presse, “Iran-trained Shiite Iraqis returning to launch bombings: police,” 9/20/08
Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08
Hess, Pamela, “Hit squads training in Iraq,” Associated Press, 8/15/08
The National, “Hizbollah training us: Mahdi Army,” 8/23/08
Nourizadeh, Ali, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to Train Iraqi Shiite Youths,” Asharq Alawsat, 8/19/08
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