Thursday, June 27, 2013

Security Operations Fail To Stop Violence In Anbar As Al Qaeda In Iraq Goes On The Offensive

For the last several weeks the Iraqi security forces (ISF) have carried out a number of operations in Anbar, especially in the western desert and along the Euphrates River. This hasn’t seemed to stop the violence however. In fact, as a sign of defiance Al Qaeda in Iraq recently announced an offensive of its own in the province. The situation has gotten so bad that local officials have told the press that the military and police have lost control of the border area, and that fighters are going back and forth between Syria and Iraq at will. This is just the latest example of the ineffectiveness of the army and police in combating the country’s insurgency.
(Institute for the Study of War)

The Iraqi security forces have announced operation after operation in Anbar to no apparent affect (Al-Mada)

In response to the country’s deteriorating security situation, the government has launched one security crackdown after another in Anbar. On May 16, the government announced The Ghost that was aimed at clearing out Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) camps in the desert region of the governorate. On May 28, the Defense Ministry said it was beginning another operation against AQI across Anbar, Ninewa, Diyala, Salahaddin, Babil, and Baghdad. At the beginning of June, the government sent the army to the Syrian and Jordanian border in Anbar. This was in preparation for the delayed elections that were taking place on June 20. Those forces stayed after the vote, and began another strike under the Anbar Operations Command in the Rawa district by the Syrian border after a clash with militants that killed two soldiers. This covered the Rawa area, the western Sahara, and the town of Nukhayb. None of these operations appeared effective, and were widely criticized by Anbaris. The deputy head of the provincial council Sadoun Abdi Shalan said that the security forces were only out in the field for 1-2 days, then they would withdraw, and militants would move right back in. An anonymous official told Al-Mada that the ISF had failed at stopping infiltrations across the Syrian border, and that they were completely unequipped for the task. The source claimed that the Iraqi army only had two helicopters to monitor the entire border area, and only one was active at a time. This came on top of the complaints about arbitrary arrests, closing down traffic between cities, and the destruction of property. These tactics have proven to be failures. They were exactly the same type used by the United States before the 2007 Surge, and everyone knows how that turned out. Raiding without holding ground can only temporarily disrupt insurgents, and the abuses that come along with the operations only create resentment amongst the populace against the security forces and government. 

There have been complaints about arbitrary arrests by the security forces in Anbar (Al-Mada)

To show how ineffective the ISF were Al Qaeda not only maintained its attacks, but also announced an offensive of its own. On June 24, AQI let it be known that it was launching a new campaign in Anbar that included the cities of Hit, Rawa, and Qaim. The next day, the deputy council head Shalan told New Sabah that there was a large increase in violence with attacks upon both civilians and the security forces. In mid-June for instance, a military barracks outside of Rawa was attacked for several hours, which only ended after helicopters showed up. Back in May, Al Qaeda also told the press that it was talking to tribal leaders in the province to win them to their side. AQI has proven to be not only resilient, but also capable of a resurgence. Last year, the group was only able to carry out a high level of operations for a few months, and then had to regroup and resupply. Now it has been carrying out a wave of bombings for the last seven months starting in December 2012. There are several factors that help explain this. First, it is benefiting from the civil war next door in Syria, which allows it to freely move across the border to gain equipment, fighters, and funds. Second, it has capitalized upon the government’s huge mistake to attack the demonstrators in Hawija, which pushed large sections of the protest movement and tribes towards violence to express their frustration. The Islamists have exploited these feelings of alienation to grow its franchise as shown in its attacks in Anbar.

Anbar was the birthplace of the insurgency in Iraq, and now it is having a rebirth. Al Qaeda in Iraq is in the lead in this resurrection. The government’s security campaigns have been unable to curtail the militants. Ironically, the security forces are actually making the situation worse with their heavy-handed tactics. That’s leading Anbar back to exactly where it was in 2003-2004 with increasing violence, tribes deciding on whether they want to support militants or not, and spreading instability. There appears to be no reversing this situation for now, which means Anbar will only slip further into chaos for the time being.


AIN, “IA continues operations in Anbar to chase Qaeda elements,” 6/14/13
- “Military operation to track down gunmen launched in Anbar,” 6/22/13

Al-Mada, “Al Qaeda announces the launch of the “New Battle” for western Anbar and police decide on comprehensive curfew,” 6/24/13
- “Sources: Fighters infiltrating Anbar and the army has only two helicopters to protect the border,” 6/24/13

Al Nuaimi, Ahmed, “”Anbar” demanding perpetuation of military operations in desert,” New Sabah, 6/25/13

Al-Qaisi, Mohammed, “Iraqi forces launch operation in response to recent attacks,” Al-Shorfa, 5/31/13

Sadah, Ali Abel, “Iraq Moves Troops To Syrian Border,” Al-Monitor, 6/18/13
- “Al-Qaeda-Iraq Statement A Sign Of Rising Sectarian Violence,” Al-Monitor, 5/31/13

Al-Shamar, Salah, “Iraq masses troops on border with Syria to guard elections in two provinces,” Azzaman, 6/16/13

REUTERS VIDEO: Iraqi Turkmen Mourn Leader Killed In Bombing

REUTERS VIDEO: Wave Of Bombings Strike Central, Northern Iraq

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lack of Workers’ Rights In Iraq

Iraq is a country full of contradictions. It has one of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, yet that wealth has failed to trickle down to the general public. The state of its workforce is a perfect example. Many of Iraq’s laborers are unskilled and uneducated. To make matters worse, the country lacks legislation to protect their rights. That means it is hard for them to organize and improve their lot.

Iraq has a large and growing workforce, but it is not very skilled. The country has one of the largest, youngest, and fastest growing populations in the Middle East and North Africa. That means it must support an ever expanding pool of laborers. It is estimated that around 250,000 people entered the labor market each year from 2007-2011. That’s supposed to increase to 290,000 per year from 2012-2016. An Iraqi study found that 54% of workers were illiterate, only 6% had primary school diplomas, and 44% did not own their homes. For some laborers, their costs exceed their pay. The exploding population places a tremendous burden upon the economy to provide employment opportunities. Unfortunately, the lack of education means that few of these new laborers can find good paying jobs. Not only that, but Iraq is one of the most oil dependent countries in the world, and that industry hardly provides any work at all. That’s left the government to become the largest employer in the country. Politicians have had no qualms about employing low skilled workers however as part of their patronage networks to maintain their base.

One way workers have tried to improve their lot is by organizing into unions, but Iraqi law severely limit their rights. The 2005 constitution says that laborers have the right to organize. At the same time, the country maintains much of its Baathist era legislation. Decree 150 of 1987 for instance, eliminated unions and rights of association in public sector and state owned enterprises. Another law states that the General Federation of Iraqi Workers is the only labor organization allowed in the country. People employed in domestic and agricultural sectors are excluded from certain protections as well. Finally, Iraq does not authorize collective bargaining, which means unions have little power to better their situation. Parliament is supposed to change these Saddam era laws, but hasn’t. In 2007 for instance, there was a draft law for unions, but it was never passed. This all means that the constitution provides little protection for Iraq’s labor force. Instead, the old legislative framework severely handicaps them, and there has been no progress in revising it. Those attempting to unionize are basically operating under Baathist rules where no independent organizing was allowed.

General Federation of Iraqi Workers headquarters in Basra (Niqash)

The government has interfered and tried to control those unions that do exist. In April 2011, the government ceased to recognize the General Federation of Iraqi Workers anymore even though it is supposed to be the only official union in the country. Baghdad then attempted to take over the organization by managing its elections. The authorities created the Ministerial Preparatory Committee to oversee union balloting. The General Federation attacked the committee for having no union members, and accused it of faking its election results in 2012. Other unions have reported the government confiscating their assets, threatening and harassing their members, threatening to use anti-terrorism laws against strikers, and using fines, demotions, suspensions, and other forms of punishments against labor activists in state run enterprises. One union leader was fined $25,000, which was several years worth of wages. In Basra, the General Federation of Trade Unions and Workers Council of Iraq had its offices broken into and destroyed in September 2012, which it blamed upon the security forces. Iraqi police have also limited media coverage of unions such as when a journalist from Al-Baghdadia TV was beaten and had his equipment taken when trying to cover a strike at a cement factor in Muthanna province in May 2012. These tactics show that the Iraqi government is not willing to accept labor organizations. It wants to control them, and if it can’t it tries to stymie their activities, so that they are ineffective.

Iraqi workers find themselves in a poor situation. Thousands of new laborers enter the workforce each year, but they usually lack skills and an education. There are also few good opportunities, which makes most of them look for a job with the government. If they’re lucky they can find employment there, but few are used productively, and have to give their support to political parties in return. The situation is worse for those in the private sector where wages are lower and job security is low. What workers usually do in these types of situations is organize into unions. Iraqi law and the security forces have stood in their way. Constant harassment and attempts to undermine the autonomy of labor groups have severely limited their scope, and ability to improve the state of workers. What this means is that the state of Iraq’s labor force has little chance of improvement until the government changes its attitude.


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” United States Department of State, 2013

Ghanim, Waheed, “no labour laws in iraq: employers pick workers’ representatives,” Niqash, 7/19/12

Al-Shaher, Omar, “Iraqi Workers Lack Laws To Protect Their Rights,” Al-Monitor, 5/2/13

Tijara Provincial Economic Growth Program, “Assessment of Current and Anticipated Economic Priority In Iraq,” United States Agency for International Development, 10/4/12

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Iraq’s Oil Exports At 15-Month Plateau, While Prices Drop

Iraq’s oil exports made a large jump from 2011 to 2012, but have since flat-lined. For the last fifteen months they have stayed at relatively the same level. The country was still profiting due to high oil prices. In the last two months that has changed however, as the price per barrel of Iraqi crude has fallen below $100. This poses a dilemma for the country as its entire development plan is based upon boosting its exports as quickly as possible, but it currently lacks the infrastructure to achieve that, and now the world oil market is changing.

In May 2013, Iraq’s petroleum exports dropped. In total, it exported 76.9 million barrels for that month, down from 78.7 million in April. That averaged out to 2.48 million barrels a day in May compared to 2.62 million in April. The southern pipeline to Basra went from 2.31 million barrels in April to 2.19 million in May. That was roughly the same level as February and March. The northern Kirkuk line averaged 283,800 barrels a day, a decrease from 306,600 in April, marking a three-month decline. For the year, the southern pipeline’s export numbers have been up in 2013 at an average of 2.177 million barrels, compared to 2.042 million in 2012. The Kirkuk line however has seen lower output from 373,300 barrels last year to 302,000 barrels this year. Oil Minister Abdul Karim Luaibi has blamed attacks upon the northern line for the overall decrease in exports. Last month, the line was bombed twice for instance. One attack at the beginning of the month shut it down for nearly a week. For months, insurgents have been targeting the line as it passes through territory they control, and it is an easy way to punish the government. Before that, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was blowing it up on the Turkish side. The government has responded by increasing patrols along the Kirkuk line to prevent sabotage. More importantly, because of disputes with the central government, Kurdistan is no longer exporting through the north. There was also maintenance in Basra that helped account for the lower exports in the south in May. All together that means Iraq is far from reaching its 2.9 million target set in the 2013 budget. That might have been unrealistic to begin with though.

Iraq Oil Exports And Profits 2011-2013
Avg. Price Per Barrel
Revenue (Bill)
Jan. 11
2011 Avg.
Jan. 12
Jan. 13
2013 Avg.

Oil Exports Through Basra 2012-2013
January 2012 1.711 mil/bar/day
February 1.639 mil/bar/day
March 1.917 mil/bar/day
April 2.115 mil/bar/day
May 2.086 mil/bar/day
June 2.085 mil/bar/day
July 2.216 mil/bar/day
August 2.252 mil/bar/day
September 2.178 mil/bar/day
October 2.172 mil/bar/day
November 2.122 mil/bar/day
December 2.022 mil/bar/day
2012 Avg. 2.042 mil/bar/day
January 2013 2.093 mil/bar/day
February 2.196 mil/bar/day
March 2.1 mil/bar/day
April 2.31 mil/bar/day
May 2.19 mil/bar/day
2013 Avg. 2.177 mil/bar/day

Oil Exports Through Kirkuk 2012-2013
January 2012 393,500 bar/day
February 375,800 bar/day
March 400,000 bar/day
April 393,300 bar/day
May 364,500 bar/day
June 316,600 bar/day
July 300,000 bar/day
August 312,900 bar/day
September 420,000 bar/day
October 451,600 bar/day
November 426,600 bar/day
December 325,800 bar/day
2012 Avg. 373,300 bar/day
January 2013 264,500 bar/day
February 339,200 bar/day
March 316,100 bar/day
April 306,600 bar/day
May 283,800 bar/day
2013 Avg. 302,000 bar/day

An additional problem facing Iraq is that prices for its petroleum are declining. In May, a barrel of Iraqi crude went down from $98.71 to $97.23. That meant in May it earned $7.477 billion compared to $7.764 billion in April. That was the fourth lowest price since January 2011, and the lowest monthly revenue since June 2012. Both prices and monthly profits have gone down this year compared to 2012. The drop was due to changes in the international market. In May, OPEC had its highest production in seven-months, while the United States also upped its output as well, and has been improving its conservation. That resulted in declining oil prices. If both trends continue the era of $100 prices could be over, which has lasted all but six months since January 2011 for Iraq. Iraq is the second most oil dependent country in the world, so it relies upon high prices to keep its economy afloat. Revenues are still high, but this could be a troubling trend in the future.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been carrying out its own independent oil policy as well. It is working to convert a natural gas pipeline to ship oil to Turkey, which is supposed to be finished by the end of the year or early 2014. It will have a capacity of 300,000 barrels a day, and connect to the existing Kirkuk line. There are plans for a second, completely independent line to Turkey as well. After its dispute with Baghdad over payments to international companies producing oil in the region, the KRG started trucking oil to Turkey openly in January 2013. By May, the Kurds were shipping around 40,000 barrels a day, and was supposed to reach 60,000 by the end of June. This oil is not only being sold locally in Turkey, but also to other foreign markets. In turn, Turkey is looking towards Kurdistan as being a major energy supplier and business opportunity. Last month, a Turkish state-run oil company announced that it was entering into a joint venture with Exxon to explore oil in the region. Baghdad considers all of this illegal, and has threatened to sue companies exporting oil and sent letters to businesses not to buy Kurdish oil on international markets, but to no avail. The central government still has other cards to play such as the national budget, which makes up 90% of the Kurdistan budget, but for now the argument is mostly a war of words as each side goes its own way.

Despite its lofty goals, Iraq currently lacks the infrastructure to dramatically improve its oil exports. Bad weather, attacks upon the northern pipeline, and the differences between Baghdad and Irbil all add to the current problems. More importantly, the oil market may be changing towards increased output, which will drive down prices. For now Iraq is still bringing in huge amounts of cash, but its long term policy of boosting production as quickly as possible might come at a bad time. Until then the country’s exports will remain at the current plateau for the foreseeable future.


Agence France Presse, “Iraq Oil Exports”
- “Iraq oil exports dip on weather, sabotage,” 6/23/13

Ahmed, Hevidar, “Kurdistan Region Announces Plans for Second Oil Pipeline to Turkey,” Rudaw, 5/21/13

Black, Ian, “Golden oil of Iraqi Kurdistan raises tensions with Baghdad,” Guardian, 6/10/13

Neuhof, Florian, “BP, Chevron, Total and other major oil firms seek new terms in Iraq,” The National, 5/23/13

Payne, Julia and Mackey, Peg, “Kurdish crude sales to rise as exports reach second Turkish port,” Reuters, 5/22/13

Press TV, “Attack on Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline halts flow,” 5/14/13

Ministry of Oil, “Iraq Crude Oil Exports – May 2013,” Republic of Iraq, 6/23/13

Nguyen, Lananh, “OPEC Boosts Oil Production to Seven-Month High in May, IEA Says,” Bloomberg, 6/12/13

Reuters, “Iraq, Eni set lower output target at Zubair oilfield,” 5/30/13
- “Iraq oil exports at 2.6m bpd average in May,” 5/26/13
- “Iraq vows to halt oil sales from KRG to Turkey,” 5/25/13
- “Iraq’s oil exports fall 200,000 bpd so far in June,” 6/21/13

Zhu, Wenqian, “U.S. oil boom helps thwart OPEC,” CNN Money, 6/19/13

Monday, June 24, 2013

Iraq in 2013 is a lot like Iraq in 2003, with many of the same mistakes being made

Read my article for Tom Ricks' Best Defense on the current security crisis Iraq is facing.

The Increasing Flow Of Iraqi Fighters To Syria, An Interview With University of Maryland’s Phillip Smyth

As the conflict in Syria has escalated, so has the involvement of foreign countries. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and now the United States and England are all supporting one group or another in the war. Neighboring Iraq has also joined in the conflict. Every month there are reports about young Iraqis going to fight in Syria, usually organized by not only Shiite militant groups like the League of the Righteous or the Hezbollah Brigades, but also the country’s major political parties like the Sadrists and the Badr Organization. These organizations are now publicly acknowledging their losses in funerals and on the Internet. Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are also recruiting, arming, and funding Iraqis. To help explain this growing flow of men and material to Syria from Iraq is Phillip Smyth. Smyth works for the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies’ Lab for Computational Cultural Dynamics. He also writes the Hizballah Cavalcade which focuses on militant Shia organizations operating in Syria, their members, ideologies, arms, funerals, and other related topics for the Jihadology website.

Fighters posing in Baghdad before heading for Syria (Reuters)

1. What’s the earliest date you have for when Iraqis first started heading for Syria to fight?

It is very hard to put an exact time when Iraqi Shia fighters first arrived in Syria. I would argue it started occurring in the Spring of 2012. The organizations to which Iraqi Shia belong to deliberately obscured the dates of their arrival and only started announcing deaths in Fall of 2012. The earliest concrete date I have for Iraqi Shia foreign fighters in Syria is early August 2012. Their presence was more officially exposed, due to their own messaging program in September-December, 2012.

Saad Abed al-Qadr Abu Shamia was from the Hezbollah Brigades and had his death announced in March 2013 (Jihadology)

2. Do you have any idea how many were going to Syria initially compared to today, and what are some of the units they have been associated with?

I’ve written about their units quite extensively on Hizballah Cavalcade on Jihadology. The primary organization was a front group called Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). LAFA is comprised of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Lebanese Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hizballah (Hezbollah Brigades), and Basra’s Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhadah. According to a number of sources, Sadr’s Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud (Promised Day Brigades) also has fighters in Syria. I have only seen isolated evidence of this. There may have also been a split in LAFA where the trained pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia fighters refused Syrian leadership.

Numbers for the amount of Iraqi Shia fighters are hard to come by. My rough estimate would be around 800-2,000. Numbers may have gone up over the past three months, but it is impossible to verify. Initially, a core of fighters, primarily from Lebanese Hezbollah and the IRGC-QF, were the first on the ground in Damascus. As of Summer 2013, trained Iraqi Shia assist in forming a piece of the core for Shia fighters in Syria.

3. What are the main motivations for young Iraqis to get involved in the Syrian conflict?

First, let us remember from where these Iraqi Shia fighters are coming from: Iranian-backed/created organizations. Thus, their views on the conflict are constructed through that lens. I will not lend credence to such views, but will attempt to explain how they see it from that angle.

These fighters view the Syrian conflict as a representation of what Iran has cast as a “Global war” on Shia. The war in Syria is presented as a grand conspiracy of Takfiri Salafists, like Al Qaeda, backed by Gulf regimes, Israel, the United States, and Europe. From Pakistan to Baghdad, Shia mosques and shrines have been attacked by various Sunni Islamist extremists. This helps feed into such a worldview. Now, Syria’s “Shia”, actually Alawite leadership is being targeted, and Syrian Twelver Shia, a tiny community are finding themselves as targets of “The U.S.-backed Takfiris”.

Another grand symbol for Shia armed “resistance” against this perceived cabal is the “Sacred defense of Sayida Zainab Shrine” in Damascus. This sort of line demonstrates that Shia are defending their holy sites in the face of such a huge and powerful conspiracy.

For Iraqis who remember the horrific 2006 and 2007 bombings of the ‘Askari Shrine in Samarra, and countless other attacks on their religious sites by radical Sunni Islamist groups namely, Al Qaeda, the Iranian narrative and the belief they are defending a holy site has particular resonance.

For them, if Syria falls, so will other Shia communities throughout the Levant. It’s a fight to the death.

4. In western reports the Sayida Zainab shrine in Damascus is almost always mentioned as where Iraqi fighters are based. Where else in Syria are they fighting, and do you have any idea what kind of operations they are involved in?

There are reasons why the shrine features prominently in most coverage on Iraqi fighters. For starters, it was the fighters and their organizations who pushed for those in the media to make these connections. The shrine serves as an extremely recognizable talking point, and creates notions of romantic self-sacrifice. It also frames the discussion into one only focusing on how foreign Shia fighters are acting only as defensive entities.

Yes, in Syria the main body of Iraqi Shia fighters have been based around the shrine. However, they have operated throughout Damascus. Just focusing on southern portions of Damascus: Some members of LAFA and Lebanese Hezbollah fought pitched battles inside the Midan neighborhood. In other cases, Iraqi Shia fighters have been photographed fighting around Damascus airport.

Based on my research, these groups have engaged in both offensive and defensive operations inside Damascus. They have served as infantry support for Syrian armored vehicles, as snipers, and as rapid reaction units, which can be quickly thrust into battle.

It is entirely possible these Iraqi Shia fighters are operating elsewhere in Syria. Nevertheless, it is rarely publicized. Iraqi Shia organizations contributing fighters need the Sayida Zainab narrative, and do not want too much material leaking out showing that they are doing more than acting as defenders.

Two fighters from the League of the Righteous photographed in Syria. The one on the right was announced dead in April 2013 (Jihadology)

5. The League of the Righteous and Hezbollah Brigade are the two groups most associated with organizing fighters for Syria. They are on the margins of Iraqi politics. Are the country’s more mainstream political parties also involved such as the Badr Organization, Sadrists, the Supreme Council, etc.?

The “marginal” qualities of these groups, in an Iraqi context, matters very little. The important aspect to grasp is that the groups contributing fighters are all Iranian-backed. These organizations and their members believe in/push the Vilayat al-Faqih ideology, and this is the primary motivating factor.

I will have a post soon on whether the Badr Organization is getting involved. At the moment it is very hazy. I think there is a limited Sadrist presence, and it may be overblown by Sunni and pro-rebel elements who recall how the Sadrists behaved in Iraq, ethnic-cleansings, kidnappings, murders, etc. Iran can call on some members of Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud, recall the fractiousness of Sadrist militant organizations and their links to Tehran. It is important to remember that Moqtada al-Sadr actually said Iraqi Shia fighters should not fight for anyone in Syria.

As the conflict becomes more overtly sectarian, a number of more mainstream Iraqi Shia parties may start to adopt many of the narrative lines the Iranian-backed groups have been utilizing. This is more passive approval. However, in terms of contributing fighters, I don’t believe we will immediately see a concerted effort by Iraq’s large and mainstream Shia parties.

6. The press likes to call of those going to Syria as militiamen. Is that a realistic characterization or are some of these novices simply getting caught up in the fervor that the Syrian war has generated?

The vast majority of Iraqi Shia fighters who are present in Syria are quite professional. It is simply more narrative when one says, “They are all volunteers” or, I’m mocking a bit with this, “They left their simple provincial lives as peasants in Iraq to protect Shia shrines”. These are well trained and very well equipped militiamen. They come from organizations, which follow a common ideology and share the same backing.

7. What role has Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah played in recruiting and organizing Iraqis heading for Syria? Once the Iraqis are in the country do those two exercise any kind of command and control over the fighters?

Iran’s role is huge. I had been researching the topic of Shia militias in Syria since Spring of 2012, and it’s astonishing how obvious Tehran has been about their control over these fighters. They are the facilitators for the Iraqi Shia fighters to fight in Syria. When some of these Iraqis are killed, they are returned via Iran. The Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah have also served as the core for the Shia foreign fighters on the ground. According to social media sources, there are Iraqi Shia commanders. However, it is clear the Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah retain a dominant role.
Banner for dead League of the Righteous fighter with images of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (left), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (top right), and League leader Qais Khazali (bottom right)

8. At first there were only a few scattered reports about Iraqis fighting in Syria, but now it has become public knowledge with funerals and Internet postings about those killed. What’s a typical online memorial like, and why do you think they are now open about them?

It is intriguing how Iraqi Shia killed in Syria is now “common knowledge”. When I first had discussions with some journalists and analysts covering Syria at the end of 2012, I was told the information I had was “Disparate” and “inconclusive”. Part of the reason for this was the fact that these organizations, and their backers had a phased approach in releasing information on their involvement. Simply put, they often lied, and most following their movements did not do the background research. Others missed the data, which was available and did not connect the dots. No one was really focused on Shia fighters aiding Assad. This was actually part of the reason why I started writing Hizballah Cavalcade, and posting funeral photos.

In terms of online memorials, they have evolved quite a bit over the past few months. Facebook has become a medium where many deceased individual fighters have found a home. Sometimes unique Facebook Pages are dedicated to them. Other times, a photo of the dead would be posted on an organization’s Facebook Page with limited details on their death. There are also personal photographs of the fighters, generally the dead posing with small arms. Yet, these photos are still released in a trickle.

For Iraqi Shia, the organization the fighter belonged to features as prominently as the dead individual on the martyrdom posters. Clerical leaders, namely Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are generally included. This is especially the case with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

YouTube is another area where funeral videos can be found. Videos of funerals for Iraqi Shia killed in Syria are not always released the day of the funeral, often they are edited. Regardless, they are invaluable for seeing how the organizations these fighters belonged to are marketing the deaths of their members, and why they are fighting.

If it had not been for the funerals, I doubt most journalists would have had any real idea Iraqi, or for that matter, Lebanese Shia with Hezbollah were fighting and dying in Syria.

Tehran must have made the calculation that the time had come for when it would be most beneficial for these groups to release more information. Additionally, Iraqi Shia organizations participating in the fighting in Syria have only become more public with announcements due to the inability to hide their activities and those of Lebanese Hezbollah, especially in the run-up to the Battle of Qusayr.

9. Has the Maliki government taken an official position about this growing flow of fighters to Syria, and is it doing anything behind the scenes about it?

Maliki has not really taken a position. I doubt he wants to see Assad fall, especially with Sunni protests in Iraq. Maliki’s opposition has generally been opposed to Iraqi Shia fighting in Syria. It’s important to remember that Maliki is also allied with groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and that his links with Tehran have increased quite a bit over the past year.

10. How do you see this playing out for Iraq? Do you think the flow of fighters will escalate, and what do you think Baghdad’s stance is going to be in the future? 

Iran will most likely continue to draw from its stock of Iraqi Shia fighters, and use them to fight in Syria. As the war in Syria continues, more Shia volunteers, legitimate ones, not simply members of Iranian proxies will also want to get in on the action. However, it remains to be seen how the Assad regime, Iran, or others could really use them successfully.

Baghdad has to play a balancing game. As the Syrian War becomes a hyper-sectarian conflict, and Sunni Islamists dominate rebel ranks, Iraqi Shia will certainly hold more sympathy for the Assad regime. The Iraqi government will also have to work with Iran’s concerns, which include the free flow of men and material out of Iraq and into Syria. While Maliki has said Iraq would search Iranian aircraft flying over Iraq to Syria, Iran still has its over flight rights. Maliki will probably remain silent when it comes to Shia fighters leaving his country and heading into Syria.


Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqi Shiite group says member killed in Syria,” Associated Press, 4/6/13

Agence France Presse, “Funeral held for Iraqi killed fighting in Syria,” 5/6/13
- “Sadr says his followers not fighting in Syria,” 6/8/12

Alsumaria News, “Governor of Anbar confirms possession of evidence of the entry of armed elements of the Mehdi Army to Syria,” 11/19/11

Aswat al-Iraq, “Sadrists deny sending fighters to Syria,” 2/12/12

Ghazi, Yasir and Arango, Tim, “Iraqi Sects Join Battle in Syria on Both Sides,” New York Times, 10/27/12

Karouny, Mariam, “Shi’ite fighters rally to defend Damascus shrine,” Reuters, 3/3/13

Lewis, Jessica, Ali, Ahmed, and Kagan, Kimberly, “Iraq’s sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize,” Institute for the Study of War, 5/31/13

Al-Mada, “Official in Basra calling for the formation of an army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12

Nakhoul, Samia and al-Salhy, Suadad, “Thousands of Shi’ites ready to fight in Syria, Iraqi says,” Reuters, 6/21/13

Al-Qaisi, Mohammed, “Iran ‘directly involved; in recruiting Iraqis to fight in Syria: officials,” Al Shorfa, 4/24/13

Recknagel, Charles and Mandee, Samira Ali, “Iraqi Volunteers Join Both Sides Of War in Syria,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5/24/13

Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Iraqi Shi’ite militants fight for Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, 10/16/12
- “Iraqi Shi’ite militants start to acknowledge role in Syria,” Reuters, 4/10/13
- “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens,” Reuters, 6/19/13

Schreck, Adam and Al-Jurani, Nabil, “Iraqi death hints of Iran’s role in Syrian crisis,” Associated Press, 5/6/13

Shafaq News, “Gunmen from Iraq and Lebanon form “Abu al-Fathl al-Abbas Brigade “to protect Sayyida Zainab shrine,” 1/20/13
- “Source: Asaib alhel al – Haq intensify their presence in Damascus to protect Zeinab shrine,” 7/26/12

Smyth, Phillip, “Hizballah Cavalcade: Roundup of Iraqis Killed in Syria, Part 1,” Jihadology, 5/11/13
- “Hizballah Cavalcade: Roundup of Iraqis Killed in Syria, Part 2,” Jihadology, 5/17/13

UPI, “Iran ‘grooms Mehdi Army for gulf ops,’” 6/9/11

This Day In Iraqi History - Jul 17 Gen Bakr led Baathist coup overthrowing Arif govt

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