Iran's Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq


Flash Presentation on the Ramazan Corps and the Iranian Ratlines into Iraq. Click the map to view. A Flash Player is required to view, click to download.

The issue of Iranian complicity in the Iraqi insurgency has been contentious since US and Iraqi forces began heavily targeting the Iranian networks in late 2006. While news reports have touted Iran's role in reducing the violence, US military officers believe Iran still serves as a source of weapons and fighters in Iraq.

The Long War Journal has spoken to several mid-level and senior US military and intelligence officers, all of whom have declined to go on the record due to the sensitive nature of the Iranian issue. Based on these conversations as well as other information, The Long War Journal has learned the nature of the Qods Force operations in Iraq and how they move resources into the country.

Qods Force and the Iraqi insurgency

Iran began to extend its influence in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. Through the Qods Force, Iran's external wing of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran immediately moved money, weapons, and operatives inside Iraq to influence the various fractured Shia political parties and militias.

Iran worked through various militias such as the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, the Qazali Network, the Shebaini Network, and a host of other surrogates to attack Coalition forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political leaders. When groups like the Badr Corps and its political backer the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq broke from the Iranian sphere of influence and integrated with the government, the Iranian-backed militias, which have since been designated the Special Groups, began attacking them as well.

To streamline operations in Iraq, the Qods Force established a unified command, called the Ramazan Corps, and split Iraq into three roughly geographical regions.

The Ramazan Corps - Qods Force Iraq Command

The picture of Qods Force's command structure and operations in Iraq became clearer since US forces began heavily targeting the Iranian networks in late December 2006. Several high-level Qods Force officers - including Qais Qazali, Azhar al Dulaimi, Ali Mussa Daqduq, and Mahmud Farhadi - have been killed or captured in Irbil, Baghdad, and several unnamed locations.

During these raids, Coalition forces seized computers and computer drives, documentation, journals, and other evidence that reinforced information obtained through the interrogations of the Qods Force officers. While military and intelligence sources would not discuss other methods, communications intercepts and satellite imagery are also likely to play a key role in understanding the Qods Force's activities in Iraq.

Critical information about the structure of the Ramazan Corps comes from the Iranian operatives captured in Iraq. Qais Qazali was the leader of the Qazali Network, which was responsible for several high-profile attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Qais, along with his brother Laith Qazali, and several other members of the Qazali Network were captured in early 2007. Azhar al Dulaimi, also a member of the Qazali network, was the tactical commander behind the attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, which resulted in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of five US soldiers. Ali Mussa Daqduq, who served as the chief of guard to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and was the commander of Hezbollah's special forces, was tasked by Iran to organize the Special Groups and "rogue" Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Mahmud Farhadi was the Qods Force officer in charge of the Zafr Command, one of the three units subordinate to the Ramazan Corps.

Multinational Forces Iraq learned that Iran set up the Ramazan Corps as a sophisticated command structure to coordinate military, intelligence, terrorist, diplomatic, religious, ideological, propaganda, and economic operations. "This Corps is responsible for most of the Qods Force operations in Iraq," said Major General Kevin Bergner, the spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, during a briefing in Baghdad on October 3.

The Ramazan Corps is based out of the Ramazan Command Center in Tehran, but information obtained by The Long War Journal indicates significant elements have forward deployed to Mehran on the border to coordinate activities.

The Ramazan Corps is split into three separate commands - Nasr, Zafar, and Fajr - each covering a roughly geographical area in Iraq.

The Long War Journal confirmed this information with a spokesman at Multinational Forces Iraq, which was hesitant to provide additional information on the Ramazan Corps. "At this particular time MNF-I is only prepared to confirm the names of the three commands that are subordinate to Ramazan Corps and that [Mahmudi] Farhadi is the Commander of the Zafr Command," said Lieutenant Commander Kevin S. Anderson.

The Nasr Command is based in Marivan in the Iranian north and deals with operations in the Kurdish regions and portions of Diyala province. The Zafar Command is based in Mehran in central Iran, and deals with operations in central Iraq, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Babil, Wasit, and portions of Diyala province.

The Fajr Command is based in Ahvaz in the south, although information obtained by The Long War Journal indicated command elements have moved forward to bases in Khorramshahr and Shalamcheh to direct operations. The Fajr Command directs operations in Basrah, Dhi Qhar, Maysan, and Muthanna.

Inside Iraq, the city of Amarah in Maysan province serves as a Qods Force / Ramazan Corps command and control center as well as one of the major distribution points for weapons in southern Iraq.

The southern and central Ratlines

The Ramazan Corps' operations begin inside Iran and flow through several points of entry along the border to destinations inside Iraq. Once inside Iraq, weapons are stockpiled and then distributed to local cells to conduct attacks on the primary and secondary targets of opportunity. The Long War Journal has obtained detailed information on the Qods Force ratlines in the central and southern regions.

Inside Iran, Qods Force manufactures and distributes weapons, provides training for Iraqi recruits, then facilitates the movement of weapons and fighters inside Iraq. Iraqi recruits, largely radicalized Shia from Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, are sent to Iran for what one US military officer described as "basic jihadi training." The recruits receive several weeks of training with small arms and, depending on the units assigned, mortars and the use of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.

Several US military sources stated the EFPs are indeed "manufactured" inside Iran at "production lines" in the Iranian hubs of Ahvaz and Mehran. One officer stated the EFPs should not be considered IEDs, as they are professionally manufactured landmines.

"The EFP is not an IED, in that there is nothing improvised about them. They are manufactured in factories, mostly I believe in Iran," said the US military officer who is familiar with both the Sunni and Shia variants of IEDs used in Iraq. "The true IED can be put together by small insurgent cells with little or no support. The EFP indicates a large logistical network."

In the south and center, recruits and weapons are smuggled through four points of entry. In the central regions, the Mehran point of entry in the central province of Wasit is controlled by the Zafar Command. This is the primary conduit of Iranian weapons into Baghdad. The Al Sheeb entry at Maysan province and the Majnun and Shalamcheh entry points at Basrah province are fed by the Fajar Command based out of Ahvaz.

After being smuggled through the border crossings, Iranian weapons are moved to what are described as "strategic distribution hubs" in the cities of Badrah, Al Kut, Amarah, Qurnah, and Basrah. From these distribution hubs, weapons stocks are then moved forward to "tactical distribution hubs" in Hillah, Diwaniyah, Al Fajr, Samawah, and Nasiriyah.

After the weapons are moved to the strategic distribution hubs, they are warehoused for later use. From strategic hubs, the weapons are distributed to the tactical distribution hubs. From these tactical hubs, the weapons are then distributed to local cells for attacks on US troops, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political and militia leaders as needed.

Baghdad is considered strategic center of gravity for EFP and mortar strikes. The Iranians believe they can influence events decisively by attacking Coalition and Iraqi targets in and around Baghdad. Iranian-made mortars and larger rockets are fired regularly at the massive Victory complex south of Baghdad where the US military maintains a large presence. US and Iraqi military patrols are targeted by EFPs inside Baghdad.

Iraqi and Coalition forces and rival political groups are targets for the Iranian-backed terror groups. The Ramazan Corps views the south as a means to shape and influence operations in and around Baghdad.

The cities of Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Basrah are the primary target locations in the south. Diwaniyah is fed by caches in Al Fajr; Nasiriyah is fed by the caches in Amarah, Qurnah, and Basrah.

Is Iran still active in Iraq?

Since the surge began, Coalition and Iraqi forces have made significant efforts to target the Qods Force-backed Special Groups operating in Iraq. Raids on Special Groups and rogue Mahdi Army cells skyrocketed since the surge began in January, while border crossings have been reinforced with Iraqi and Coalition forces.

In Wasit province, Multinational Division Central deployed a Georgian Army brigade along the border to specifically intercept the Iranian ratlines flowing from Badrah to Al Kut and Baghdad.

While several senior Iraqi officials and US military commanders have stated Iran has cooperated in reducing the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq, some US combat commanders engaged in fighting the Special Groups disagree.

On November 15, Major General James Simmons, the Deputy Commander for Multinational Forces Iraq said the reduction in Iranian-inspired attacks along with a lack of evidence that weapons were crossing the border indicate Iran has agreed to a pledge to reduce violence in Iraq. "We believe that this indicates the commitments Iran has made appear to be holding up," Simmons said.

Iraqi spokesman Ali al Dabbagh agreed. "Iran is showing more restraint in sending people and weapons to destabilize Iraq," said Dabbagh on November 18. "[Prime Minister Maliki] spoke very frankly with the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] in Mashad. He said Iran had to choose whether to support the [Iraqi] government or any other party. ... Everything gives the feeling that Iran is making good on its pledge. The freezing of the Mahdi Army is evidence of its good intentions. Iran played a role in this."

But three US commanders directly in the fight against the Special Groups in three of the most active theaters for the Ramazan Corps -- Baghdad, central provinces, and along the Iranian border -- disagree.

Colonel Don Farris, the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division based in the heart of Sadr City in Baghdad, stated the Special Groups still pose a major threat. "While the violence is down, I remain very concerned in our sector about these special groups," Farris said. "They're very lethal, they're organized, they're sophisticated and I have not seen that their operations have declined or diminished in any way, shape or form here in the last several months. We have not seen any slowing down or any indicators that these special groups are going to curtail their activities or quit receiving this support that's coming from outside the country."

Major General Rick Lynch, the Commander of Multinational Division Central, whose area of operations includes Wasit, Karbala, Babil, and southern Baghdad provinces, is not certain Iran has reduced the flow of aid to the Shia terror groups. "I don't know what this Iranian pledge is, but the number of munitions has increased," Lynch said on November 11. "It could be that we are finding them more. But it is still troublesome. I have no idea when these EFP munitions came ... before or after the pledge. I don't know."

On November 22, Lynch stated his forces are still finding Iranian munitions "that are traceable back to Iran," and the Special Groups are still active. "They're still operating in our battlespace," he said. "But I can't say whether or not this is an increased problem or a flatline problem or a decreasing problem."

Colonel Mark Mueller, the commander of the border transition team in Wasit province, stated on November 20 that weapons are still moving across the border. "We do know that explosively formed penetrators are getting across the border, we do know that ... rockets are coming across the border, so of course it's a concern," Mueller said.

Local intolerance of Iranian influence

The Iraqi Shia in the south have begun to organize against Iranian activities inside their country. In November, over 300,000 Shia, including 600 tribal leaders "signed a petition accusing Iran of sowing 'disorder' in southern Iraq." "More than 300,000 people from the southern provinces condemned the interference of the Iranian regime in Iraq and especially in spreading security disorder in the provinces," the sheikhs said in a statement released to Reuters.

Tribal militias in Wasit province formed to help secure the Iranian border. "The leader of the Migasees tribe here in Wasit province, acknowledged tribal leaders have discussed creating a brigade of young men trained by the Americans to bolster local security as well as help patrol the border with Iran," the Associated Press reported. Tribal militias are forming in Maysan and Basrah provinces, Multination Forces Iraq told The Long War Journal in a recent inquiry on the status of the Concerned Local Citizens forces currently forming nationwide.

Iran's complicity with the Iraqi insurgency has been a problem since the Coalition invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It was only in late 2006 that the US began to address this problem seriously. Whether Iranian intervention in Iraq is increasing, decreasing, or unchanged, Coalition and Iraqi forces must continue military and counterterrorism operations against the Ramazan Corps inside Iraq. While there have been several reports of Coalition special forces conducting raids inside Iran these accounts are unconfirmed. The Iraqi and Coalition governments must continue to pressure Iran both militarily and diplomatically to halt its terror operations inside Iraq in order for the central government to gain stronger control of the security of the country as a whole.


The Flash presentation was produced by Nick Grace of Global Crisis Watch and ThreatsWatch.org. With special thanks to Karen Coulson for her assistance.



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READER COMMENTS: "Iran's Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq"

Posted by Richard at December 5, 2007 12:47 PM ET:

I really wish the US military hit Iran hard inside there borders. Send a resounding message we can and will take you out in and out of Iraq.

Posted by Bill Roggio at December 5, 2007 1:26 PM ET:

There is a problem with viewing the Flash app in Internet Explorer. It does work with Firefox. I am working to fix this now, will update here when resolved.

Posted by Bill Roggio at December 5, 2007 1:33 PM ET:

The problem has been resolved.

Posted by exhelodrvr at December 5, 2007 3:17 PM ET:

Great work as always, Bill. On a somewhat related topic, it seems to me that if Iran did actually stop their nuke weapons program in 2003, then clearly a significant factor was what was going on in Iraq. This, of course, further validates the President's course of action, as "better behavior" from nations such as Iran was one of the specified hoped-for results. Combine that with North Korea's recent actions (assuming that they can be taken at face value), and you have some pretty powerful evidence that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do.

Posted by Alex at December 5, 2007 4:43 PM ET:

Wishful thinking of mine, but here goes.

January 2008: 14 Iraqi Army divisions are around 90-95% manned.
March 2008: Mi17 helicopter units operational.
May 2008: As part of a US scale-down plan, the Iraqi Army receives a shipment of older M60 tanks and even some M1 tanks, as well as Apache helicopters.
August 2008: Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley economists note a sharp increase in Iraqi gross domestic product due to returning refugees and increased economic activity. The firms add Iraqi companies to their Emerging Markets Fund. Al-Sadr claims it to be a western plot to steal Iraqi money.
September 2008: "New" evidence surfaces that implicates Al-Sadr to various terrorist activity in 2006-07. Iraqi justice minister says he is "deeply concerned, and nobody is above the law."
October 2008: Al-Sadr is arrested in his office and hauled away on national TV, Enron style.
February 2009: Iran's supreme leader complains about Iraqi Army Special Forces "secret cells" causing trouble.

Posted by DJ Elliott at December 5, 2007 5:17 PM ET:

Alex

January 2008: 14 Iraqi Army divisions are around 90-95% manned.
- Unrealistic. The last 8 Bdes (early 2009), the HQ elements of 12th Division (July 2008), additional logistics (2008), engineers (2008), and the FA Rgts (2009) are left to build. Plus the ISOF will only be reinforced Bde sized at end 2008. 65-70% is more like it.

March 2008: Mi17 helicopter units operational.
- One Squadron is allready operational and ISOF is training with them for future support missions.

May 2008: As part of a US scale-down plan, the Iraqi Army receives a shipment of older M60 tanks and even some M1 tanks, as well as Apache helicopters.
- M1s and Apache doubtfull. Reporting of M60s has been floating for almost a year, yet no show yet. Best guess is the Pattons that Greece is disposing of to remain in CFE treaty are in refurbishment for eventual delivery. As to Armed helos, the Mi17s already have 57mm rocket pods and MGs...

Sadr. Who knows. I do not expect him to place himself where he can be caught. He runs when the going gets tough...

Iranians are already complaining about covert ops based in Iraq and have been for years...

Posted by Anonymous at December 5, 2007 8:40 PM ET:

Nice flash.

Posted by Turner at December 5, 2007 8:41 PM ET:

Yeah, nice flash.

Posted by Andrew at December 5, 2007 10:37 PM ET:

In regards to the recent NIE report, it seems a bit unusual that an NIE report would make such an abrupt change. With this in mind, how much did the ongoing Iranian/U.S negotiations in Iraq affect this report? With the recent downward trend in violence and reports of decreased arms smuggling into Iraq, did the Iranian government make good on its promises to quell the Qods problem?

Posted by LT Nixon at December 6, 2007 6:19 AM ET:

Andrew,

Good question and it depends on who you ask. Ambassador Crocker said they were a waste of time, but the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government said they were "excellent" for relations. Now with the NIE report, maybe the next upcoming trilateral talks between U.S./Iraq/Iran can help curb this malicious activity in Iraq that has been highlighted well in the post above. I've got some hope for diplomacy, since our military is so strapped right now, another war would be really difficult.

Posted by Jeff Nuding at December 6, 2007 12:14 PM ET:

Bill, excellent work as always. Nick did a terrific job on that flash, we need more of that kind of thing getting better airplay.

Thanks to Long War for making it so digestible.

Posted by jeandon at December 7, 2007 5:12 AM ET:

Elliot, "Iranians are already complaining about covert ops based in Iraq and have been for years..." Good point!

How 'bout reverse rat-lines? Why aren't Iranis complaining more loudly about insurgency inside Iran, emanating from Iraq? There are already anti-Iran local forces in Iraq, including the Kurds, not to mention antimullah and democracy dissidents inside Iran. Can't our spec ops support attacks, at least against the rat line infrastructure, inside Iran?

Posted by Jeffrey at December 7, 2007 9:43 AM ET:

I'm curious as to why no one would go on the record for your report, Bill. Isn't that necessary in order to establish verifiable evidence of Iran's incursions?

Another question that came to mind when I watched your flash presentation was, if your primary sources didn't want to be identified, should the data be released? Aren't you announcing to Iran that we know your entry points, and won't that encourage the enemy to change them?

I guess what I'm asking is, how do your anonymous sources feel about your presentation? Are they happy that it's out, or are they concerned about your letting Iran know what they know? Or does Iran just not care?

Posted by Rhyno327/lrsd at December 7, 2007 12:32 PM ET:

The Iranians complaining? They sure don't like a dose of thier own meds, or the kind JSOC or the SAS do either. I been saying it for a long time-hit them where they store these weapons, train the islamofacists that cross the border. Those weapons do not come directly from Teheran, there are "weigh stations" that warehouse arms and people. There must be a whole lot of intel gained when one of these places gets hit. Bill and DJ great work, stay safe..God Bless

Posted by Bill Roggio at December 8, 2007 11:50 AM ET:

Jeff,

I explained in the lead sentence that this is a contentious issue, and then explained towards the end why. There are some who want to downplay Iran's complicity in Iraq to further negotiations.

The sources I spoke to were not authorized to go on the record on this issue. Very rarely do I use anonymous sources (if you read daily you will see I greatly prefer to link to open source reports.) In this case I felt this story was important enough that I'd have to run with anonymous source. It is not my preference.

As far as if it needed to have people to go on the record "to establish verifiable evidence of Iran's incursions" that is for you the reader to decide. I stand by my work.

We have captured numerous Qods Force and Special Groups operatives and seized documentation about their activities in Iran and Iraq. Do you think Iran might actually figure we know something about their operations? Numerous generals have gone on the record about who we've captured and what we know about Iran's complicity in Iraq.

I have yet to receive a single complaint about this presentation and article. I've forward the article to a command in Iraq engaged in this particular fight, and received no negative feedback.

Finally, there is a difficult balance to this. I have to weigh the public's right to know what Iran is doing to US forces and our Iraqi allies inside Iraq with operational security concerns. I am comfortable I have struck this balance. The details provide are rather generic. I did not identify specific routes. The POEs can be identified from open source reporting, as can some of the city-specific reporting.


Posted by Jeffrey at December 8, 2007 1:18 PM ET:

Thanks for the reply, Bill. I do know that you usually cite references to back up your stories. That you didn't this time is one of the reasons for my earlier question to you. The total cover of anonymity regarding your sources was another red flag. And the propensity of the Media in general to release sensitive material for readership purposes is still another.

However, the fact that you not only posted a detailed reply but took the time to speak with me privately has allieviated all of my initial concerns about this post. I appreciate your candor and your honesty, and wish you the best. Keep up the good work, Bill.

Posted by Dastagir at April 8, 2010 2:48 AM ET:

Almost all the tactics of the coalition forces are failed in Iraq. They were in the fools' paradise after their first victory. They killed or arrested most Iraqi military and powerful Bathist leaders. They dismantled the Iraqi army and the military men joined with the resistance forces in Iraq against the coalition forces. Iraq has a majority of Shia population and they were second class citizens under Saddam. US and its NATO friends never helped the Shias and Kurds in Iraq, when Saddam crushed them with Weapons supplied by West. They even supplied Chemical weapons, which Saddam effectively used against Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Iranians are very clever. They know as long as the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are in jeopardy, US and its allies won't attack them. So they are doing their best to avoid that by helping the insurgency. How can anyone blame that? And it is almost impossible to clear the mess created by US and its friends without support from Iran. For that they have to stop the language of strength and intimidation. Peace will prevail in this World only if there is mutual respect among nations. There is enough source in this World for all mankind, but not for their greed. The urge for looting other nations' resource in the name of war on terror and democratization is not right. In most cases injustice breeds terrorism. Military strength will never bring peace. See the case of Israel? It is sitting on a pile of hundreds of nukes and arms supplied by US. Still they sweat against the stone of Palestinian youths. PEACE TO THE WORLD.

Posted by flloyd at January 5, 2011 2:44 PM ET:

in the enviroment that the coalition forces are operating in more assets need to be deployed to deal with threats coming from the iranians, we need to covertly attack and destroy these ratlines,if the iranians can deny this type of operation then we should also be inclined to do the same.

Posted by J C at February 6, 2011 4:35 PM ET:

Iran's Qods Force must be understood well in their 'modus operandi',before being dealt with in SW AFG and in IRQ.

Iran's policy in greatly influenced by US goals in the middle east,and those,further on are influenced by the R and L parties in US,plus outside elements:Israel,France,UK,Germany.That being summarized.

Now, what is happening lately in Iraq is known -to a certain extent- by the press: there is a shift in the way Iran used to operate.That occurs at several levels.One of them is that Iran doesn't see Iraq becoming a stable nation as a goal anymore.You have to see the big picture.The world's focus is on Iran,and -IT- cannot be seen targeting certain areas of the world to promote it's interests.What Iran does,it starts to follow PAK's ISI's trends, by creating and providing assistance ,indirectly to Al-Qaeda and other HIK violent groups,trough the creation of -CELLS- weather they are near the IRAN's borders or not.

I can state with certain confidence,that Iran had to make deals with PAK on this matter.Both nations have been accused of harboring and providing assistance to terror groups,so PAK and IRAN working together is a logic outcome.

It's not about making deals with Iran,because a deal with Iran is like giving assistance and time to the regime to more supply networks for IAO.It is about showing the world that Iran is not and cannot be a honest regime,that can follow any rule.