More than 75 Iraqis were killed and more than 300 were wounded in a coordinated mortar and bomb attack in the Iraqi capital. The attack takes place as the US military is planning on freeing more than 300 members of a dangerous Iranian-backed Shia terror group.
The near-simultaneous blasts occurred near government buildings while mortars landed inside the perimeter of the Green Zone near the United Nations mission and near an Iraqi Army base in central Baghdad.
A truck bomb detonated near the Foreign Ministry appears to have caused the largest number of casualties. Bombings near the Finance Ministry and the Baghdad provincial government building resulted in five deaths.
While no terror group has taken credit for the attack, al Qaeda in Iraq is the primary suspect. Security forces detained two members of an al Qaeda bombing cell as they attempted to plant a bomb to be used during today’s attack.
Today’s strike is the largest in Baghdad since Iraqi forces took control of security in the capital and in the major cities in June. The month of July had the lowest recorded number of casualties in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
The coordinated attack may lead the Iraqi government to reconsider its decision to remove the concrete blast walls that were erected throughout the city in 2007 and 2008 to contain the effects of large bombings and restrict the movement of bombing cells.
US to release Asaib al Haq members
As the violence spikes in Baghdad, the US military is planning on turning over the remaining members of the Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous, an Iranian-backed terror group with ties to the Mahdi Army, to the Iraqi government, which will then release the fighters. The release is being conducted as part of a reconciliation effort with the group, which led the violent uprising in Baghdad, Basrah, and in central and southern Iraq in 2008.
So far, nearly 100 members, including several senior members of the group as well as senior Iranian Qods Force officers, have been released from US custody.
“About 100 members have been released so far and we are committed to stick to our promises and to support the political process in Iraq as long as the government continues to honor its promises and the foreign forces continue to withdraw,” Salam al Maliki, a spokesman for the League of the Righteous, told The Associated Press.
General Raymond Odierno, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said the members of the League of the Righteous are being let go because the group “appeared to be respecting the cease-fire and have begun to turn in heavy weapons or at least to consolidate the heavy weapons that they have.”
“This is about reconciliation,” Odierno told AP. “We believe Asaib al-Haq has taken initial steps to reconcile with the government of Iraq.”
Odierno admitted that members of the group who are known to have killed US soldiers are being released and said they were unlikely to be tried in Iraqi courts.
So far, the US has released Laith al Qazali, the brother of Qais, the former leader of League of the Righteous. Laith and Qais, who is still in custody, are said to have planned and ordered the assault on the Karbala Provincial Coordination Center that resulted in the kidnapping and execution five US soldiers.
The US has also released Ali al Lami, a senior member of the terror group who is accused of ordering the bombing at a municipal building in Sadr City. Eight people, including two US soldiers and two US diplomats, were killed in the attack.
Also released was Mahmud Farhadi, the leader of the Zafr Command, one of three units subordinate to the Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps, the unit assigned to direct attacks against US forces and the Iraqi government. Farhadi is considered one of the three most dangerous Iranian operatives to have been captured in Iraq since the US began targeting the Iranian-backed Shia terror networks. His role as one of the three theater commanders in the Ramazan Corps means he is directly responsible for planning, coordinating, and executing attacks against US forces.
Several US military and intelligence officials are very concerned that the release of the League of the Righteous members, particularly some of the leaders, may stoke the violence in Baghdad.
“The last thing the Iraqis need right now is for the wholesale release of members of this group just when the Iraqi security forces are trying to learn to walk,” one official told The Long War Journal. “I see no indication the Asaib al Haq [League of the Righteous] is sincere about reconciliation; US troops are still being attacked by these Iranian surrogates.”
One military officer said the release is being conducted too quickly and may undo efforts to contain the worst of Iran’s terror proxies.
“Two years of hard work and sacrifices paid in blood is going down the tubes,” a US military officer said. “Even if we have to let them go, why let them go now? Why not wait until the last possible minute?”
Another official was particularly horrified by the release of Farhadi, the senior Qods Force officer.
“Even if we are backing reconciliation [between the Iraqi government and the League of the Righteous], why let Farhadi go?” the official said. “While the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] requires the US to turn over all prisoners captured in Iraq, we all know exceptions will be made.”
“We captured Abd al Hadi al Iraqi as he entered Iraq,” the official said, referring to the senior al Qaeda paramilitary commander who was sent by Osama bin Laden to direct operations during 2007.
“Do you think he will be turned over to the Iraqis?” the official continued. “Guess again. He’s in Gitmo and isn’t going anywhere. We should have made the same exception for Farhadi; he is far too dangerous to have been released.”
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. Presentation by Nick Grace and Bill Roggio, December 2007.
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 were 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. 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 17 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 reinitiate 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 during an interview at the World Affairs Council Global Leadership Series that Iran continued to back the Special Groups.
“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.