The US military broke up an Iranian-backed terror cell associated with Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army during a raid in Al Kut in central Iraq. Iraqi officials are claiming the US military conducted the raid without approval.
Coalition forces killed one Iranian-backed terrorist and captured six others during a raid that targeted a financier who supports both the Mahdi Army Special Groups and the Brigade of the Promised Day. One woman was also killed during a gunfight that broke out during the raid; the woman was caught in the crossfire.
The Brigade of the Promised Day was created by Sadr last June after he announced the disbanding of the Mahdi Army in June 2008. The Brigade of the Promised Day is supposedly assigned to attack Coalition forces only, but the group has not been linked to any attacks since its formation last summer.
The raid indicates that the Mahdi Army Special Groups are working directly with Sadr’s new militia. The Mahdi Army Special Groups is a term used by the US military to describe the factions within the Mahdi Army that broke away from Sadr during infighting in 2007 and 2008. The Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous, is the largest and most deadly faction. The US began to directly associate the Mahdi Army with the Iranian terror groups in November 2008 after drawing a distinction between the two in order to create a rift in Sadr’s movement.
Al Kut was a known Mahdi Army and Special Groups hot spot before the Iraqi government launched an operation against the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups during the spring of 2008. Al Kut served as a hub for operations and a weapons storage depot for the Special Groups.
Raid sparks controversy over US-Iraq agreement
Iraqi officials have protested the US raid in Al Kut, claiming the US military conducted the operation without approval from the Iraqi government as required by the Status of Forces Agreement that went into effect at the beginning of 2009.
The chairman of Wasit province demanded the US release those detained in the raid. “The council has urged the U.S. side to release the four detainees and to provide a written explanation for the raid,” council chairman Mahmoud Abdulreda said during a press conference, according to Voices of Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqis protested in Al Kut and some officials claimed that only civilians and a police captain were captured.
But the US military said the raid was “fully coordinated and approved by the Iraqi government.”
The US military’s case is supported by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. According to a press release, the Ministry of Defense detained two senior military officers “for giving the green light to a US raid without a government approval,” Voices of Iraq reported. A battalion and a brigade commander were arrested for their involvement in approving the US raid.
Today’s raid is the first high-profile action against the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups operating in central Iraq in months. Operations against the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups have tapered off over the past few months. However, in the southern city of Basrah, Iraqi security forces are conducting huge sweeps, apparently attacking Mahdi Army remnants still operating in the province. Dozens of “wanted men” have been detained in Basrah on a daily basis for the past several weeks.
The raid against the Mahdi Army Special Groups takes place just days after suicide bombers targeted Iranian pilgrims in Baghdad and Diyala. Three suicide attacks resulted in scores of dead Iranians as the bombers detonated near Shia religious shrines. The Iranian government blamed the US and Israeli intelligence for the attacks.
“The American and Israeli intelligence services are the prime suspects,” supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state television. “Dirty hands and evil brains that founded this blind and uncontrolled terrorism in Iraq should know that the fire will burn them, too.”
But the US has found evidence of Iranian-backed Mahdi Army leaders conducting attacks that were designed to mimic al Qaeda suicide bombings.
In June 2008, a Mahdi Army cell leader named Haydar Mahdi Khadum Al Fawadi was behind a deadly attack in the Kadamiyah district in Baghdad that killed 51 Iraqis and wounded more than 80.
In February 2008, a car bombing that was initially blamed on al Qaeda was traced back to the Special Groups. The explosion near an open-air market in Sadr City killed two Iraqis and wounded 25 more.
The November 2007 bombing of the al Ghazi pet market in a predominately Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, which killed 15 Iraqis and wounded 56, was also carried out by the Special Groups. The attack was initially thought to have been carried out by al Qaeda.
Iranian activity in 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.
Both the Iraqi government and the US military have said Iran has backed various Shia terror groups, including elements of the Mahdi Army. While the Iranian government has denied the charges, Iraqi and US forces have detained dozens of Iranian Qods Force officers and operatives, captured numerous Shia terrorist leaders under Iranian command, and have found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied weapons.
US and Iraqi forces have captured several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq since late 2006. Among those captured are Mahmud Farhadi, one of the three Iranian regional commanders in the Ramazan Corps; Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative; Qais Qazali, the leader of the Qazali Network which is better known as the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous; and Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali’s senior tactical commanders. The US has imposed sanctions on Major General Ahmad Foruzandeh, the former Qods Force commander, and Abdul Reza Shahlai, a deputy commander in Iran’s Qods Force, for backing Shia terror groups inside Iraq.
Since mid-October 2008, Iraqi and US forces have killed one Qods Force operative and captured 14 during raids throughout southern and central Iraq.
Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has supported various Shia militias and terror groups inside Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Qods Force helped to build the Mahdi Army along the same lines as Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran denies the charges, but captive Shia terrorists admit to being recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.
Iran established the Ramazan Corps immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime to direct operations inside Iraq. The US military says Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped establish, fund, train, arm, and provide operational support for Shia terror groups such as the Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous. The US military refers to these groups as well as the Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army as the “Special Groups.” These groups train in camps inside Iran.
US military officers believe that Iran is ramping up its operations inside Iraq after its surrogates suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Iraqi military during the spring and summer of 2008. Iraqi troops went on the offensive against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terror groups in Baghdad, Basrah, and central and southern Iraq. More than 2,000 Mahdi Army members were killed and thousands more were wounded. The operation forced Muqtada al Sadr to agree to a cease-fire, disband the Mahdi Army, and pull the Sadrist political party out of the provincial elections. Sadr’s moves caused shock waves in the Mahdi Army, as some of the militia’s leaders wished to continue the fight against US forces in Baghdad and in southern and central Iraq.
The League of the Righteous is a splinter group that broke away from Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army after Sadr announced he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces in June. The new group, called the Brigade of the Promised Day, has not been linked to any attacks since its formation last summer.
Sadr loyalist Qais Qazali was commander of the League of the Righteous up until his capture in 2007. It is now said to be under the command of Akram al Kabi, a former Sadr loyalist.
The League of the Righteous receives funding, training, weapons, and direction from the Qods Force. The League of the Righteous conducts attacks with the deadly armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles known as EFPs, as well as with the more conventional roadside bombs.
The size of the League of the Righteous is unknown, but hundreds of members of the group were killed, captured, or fled to Iran during the Iraqi government offensive against the Mahdi Army from March to July of 2008, according to the US military.
Sadr is looking to pull the rank and file of the League back into the fold of the Sadr political movement. Earlier this year Sadr issued a message rejecting the US-Iraqi security agreement and said he “extends his hand to the mujahideen in the so-called Asaib but not their leaderships who have been distracted by politics and mortal life from the [two late] Sadrs and the interests of Iraq and Iraqis.”
The Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata’ib Hezbollah, has been active in and around Baghdad for more than a year. The terror group has increased its profile by conducting attacks against US and Iraqi forces, using the deadly explosively-formed penetrator land mines and improvised rocket-assisted mortars, which have been described as flying improvised explosive devices. The Hezbollah Brigades has posted videos of these attacks on the Internet.
The terror group is an offshoot of the Iranian-trained Special Groups, the US military said last summer. Hezbollah Brigades receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from the Qods Force.
The US and Iraqi military believe the Special Groups are preparing to re-initiate fighting as their leaders and operatives are beginning to filter back into Iraq from Iran. On Feb. 4, Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the deputy commander of Multinational Forces Iraq, said that Iran continues to arm, fund, and train the Special Groups, and that munitions traced back to Iran continue to be uncovered in Iraq. Recent intelligence and the finds of new Iranian caches “lead us to believe that Iranian support activity is still ongoing,” Austin warned.