US releases Iranian Qods Force agents
The US military recently released five Iranian Qods Force agents who had posed as diplomats and were detained in northern Iraq in late 2006. The Iranian agents were released to the Iraqi government, which is expected to promptly turn them back over to Iran.
In January 2007, the five Iranian agents were detained by US forces in the Kurdish city of Irbil. Iran claimed the men were part of a diplomatic mission in Irbil, and protested the arrest. The men were operating from a liaison office that did not enjoy diplomatic privileges, however.
The US military accused the five Iranians of being Qods Force agents assigned to help support Shia terror groups inside Iraq.
"The five detainees are connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - Qods Force (IRGC-QF), an organization known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilize the Government of Iraq and attack Coalition forces," noted Multinational Forces Iraq in press release announcing the arrest in mid-January 2007.
Now these Qods Force agents have been released to the Iraqi government and will be turned over to the embassy in Baghdad, according to Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi.
"The five Iranian diplomats abducted in Iraq were handed over by the occupying US forces to the Iraqi prime minister (Nuri al-Maliki)," Qomi said.
Qomi himself had been accused of being a Qods Force agent by General David Petraeus back in November 2007 while he commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. Petraeus now heads US Central Command.
The campaign against Iran's terror network in Iraq kicked off with the capture of Iranian agents in Baghdad in December 2006 and the detention of the Qods Force agents in Irbil the following month. The US and Iraqi militaries cracked down hard on the Ramazan Corps, the command set up by Qods Force to direct operations inside Iraq. The campaign culminated in a major operation led by the Iraqi security forces to dismantle the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army and allied Special Groups in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq.
The recent release of the Irbil Five, as they came to be known, was preceded by the release last month of Laith Qazali, the brother of Qais Qazali.
Qais Qazali was the commander of the Qazali network, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous. Qais was a spokesman and senior aide to Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr. The terror group, which was part of the Mahdi Army until the spring of 2008, has received extensive financial and military support from Iran's Qods Force.
The League of the Righteous was directly implicated by General David Petraeus as being behind the January 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, as well as other high-profile terror attacks in Iraq. Five US soldiers were killed during the Karbala attack and subsequent kidnapping attempt. After US and Iraqi security forces closed in on the assault team, the terrorists executed the five US soldiers.
Laith was later released as part of negotiations to free five British contractors taken captive by Qais' group shortly after their leader had been detained. The League of the Righteous responded to Laith's release by turning over the bodies of two of the hostages and demanding the return of all of the group's leadership before releasing any other captives. The two hostages were murdered months before their bodies were turned over to the British.
As power is transferred back to the Iraqi government, the US will continue to release the Iranian and Hezbollah agents captured in Iraq.
US intelligence officials who directly deal with the Iranian threat in Iraq are dismayed by the release of the Qods Force agents, and say the release of more is in the pipeline.
"If you didn't like the release of Laith and the Irbil Five, you'd better get used to it," one official told The Long War Journal in disgust.
"We worked hard to catch these bastards, now we're cutting them loose with little thought to the consequences of doing this."
Background on 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 inside Iraq, 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 found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied weapons.
Since late 2006, US and Iraqi forces have captured and killed several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq. 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. a href="http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2007/05/azhar_aldulaimi_the.php">Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali's senior tactical commanders, was killed in Iraq in early 2007.
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 having been recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.
Immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran established the Ramazan Corps to direct operations inside Iraq. The US military says that 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 along with 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 has been ramping up its operations inside Iraq since 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.
Iranian-backed Shia terror groups in 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. The group 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.
In July 2009, General David Petraeus, the commanding officer of US Central Command, said Iran continued to back the Special Groups during an interview at the World Affairs Council's Global Leadership Series in Seattle.
"There is no question that Iran continues to fund, train, equip, and direct to varying degrees some of the groups still active in Iraq," Petraeus said.